Scientists Accidentally Create Simple Solution to Global Warming

Global warming is largely caused by carbon dioxide. Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory just figured out a way to change it into something better. 


These gray blobs below might not look like much to you, but to chemists they just might be the holy grail of fossil fuel conversion.


A photomicrograph of the ORNL catalyst showing the carbon nanospikes that can convert carbon dioxide into ethanol. Credit: ORNL

The Department of Energy has spent years trying to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, or C02, is released into our atmosphere from both our breathing and as a byproduct of industrial combustion from fossil fuel. It’s also a greenhouse gas, meaning it traps heat and warms the temperature of the planet. In fact, it is “the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activities,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency. “In 2014, CO2 accounted for about 80.9% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.” That means it’s the biggest culprit of climate change, and the one scientists are trying hardest to stop.

Scientists are trying everything from storing it underground to converting it into a cleaner fuel source. Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) accidentally figured out a way to do the latter by converting C02 into ethanol – a cleaner, more sustainable fuel source.

Strange as that sounds, carbon dioxide can be chemically converted into fuel. It’s difficult to do, as it is “chemically unreactive,” as the Department of Energy (DOE) reports. Carbon dioxide needs a catalyst, “a particular compound that could make carbon dioxide react more readily. When converting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into a sugar, plants use an organic catalyst called an enzyme,” the DOE continues. The researchers at ORNL used “a catalyst made of carbon, copper and nitrogen and applied voltage to trigger a complicated chemical reaction that essentially reverses the combustion process,” they explain in a press release. In order to activate carbon dioxide at the molecular level, they utilized nanotechnology. Popular Mechanics explains the process as “a new combination of copper and carbon arranged into nanospikes on a silicon surface. The nanotechnology allows the reactions to be very precise, with very few contaminants.” The researchers expected the carbon nanospikes to be the first step in a long process, but were pleasantly surprised to discover it was the only step they needed. They explain the full details in the journal Chemistry Select, but here’s a video version:

Credit: ORNL/YouTube

"By using common materials, but arranging them with nanotechnology, we figured out how to limit the side reactions and end up with the one thing that we want," researcher Adam Rondinone said in the ORNL press release. He explained the process further to New Atlas, stating that "a process like this would allow you to consume extra electricity when it's available to make and store as ethanol. This could help to balance a grid supplied by intermittent renewable sources."

That is a big deal, because ORNL’s process chemically negates a harmful substance with common materials and only 1.2 volts of electricity – and it works at room temperature, meaning “it can be started and stopped easily with little energy cost,” Popular Mechanics explains. They point out another additional benefit, too: the process could also be used “as temporary energy storage during a lull in renewable energy generation, smoothing out fluctuations in a renewable energy grid.”

ORNL has essentially created a way to remove large amounts of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere in a cheap, efficient, scalable way, which the team hopes could be used to mitigate or completely reverse fossil fuel carbon dioxide production. They’re working on refining their methods to “increase ethanol production rates and to better determine the full mechanism of selective chemical production of the copper/carbon catalyst,” according to New Atlas.

Hopefully, they’ll develop a system that’s easy for industrial producers to use. If they do, and if our government signs off on it, this process might just be the next big step in reducing climate change.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Can the keto diet help treat depression? Here’s what the science says so far

A growing body of research shows promising signs that the keto diet might be able to improve mental health.

Public Domain
Mind & Brain
  • The keto diet is known to be an effective tool for weight loss, however its effects on mental health remain largely unclear.
  • Recent studies suggests that the keto diet might be an effective tool for treating depression, and clearing up so-called "brain fog," though scientists caution more research is necessary before it can be recommended as a treatment.
  • Any experiments with the keto diet are best done in conjunction with a doctor, considering some people face problems when transitioning to the low-carb diet.
Keep reading Show less

Steven Pinker's 13 rules for writing better

The Harvard psychologist loves reading authors' rules for writing. Here are his own.

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 21: Steven Pinker speaks onstage during OZY Fest 2018 at Rumsey Playfield, Central Park on July 21, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for Ozy Media)
Personal Growth
  • Steven Pinker is many things: linguist, psychologist, optimist, Harvard professor, and author.
  • When it comes to writing, he's a student and a teacher.
  • Here's are his 13 rules for writing better, more simply, and more clearly.
Keep reading Show less

Want to age gracefully? A new study says live meaningfully

Thinking your life is worthwhile is correlated with a variety of positive outcomes.

YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A new study finds that adults who feel their lives are meaningful have better health and life outcomes.
  • Adults who felt their lives were worthwhile tended to be more social and had healthier habits.
  • The findings could be used to help improve the health of older adults.
Keep reading Show less