Discovered a Way to Make Alcohol Out of Thin Air

Researchers say they have a way to make alcohol out of thin air, and the technique might even save the world in the bargain, not just our rent money. Now before you start organising your weekend around this bubbly fantasy, the alcohol we’re talking about here is more than just the stuff in your drink, and the thin air it’s made from is actually heavy – clogged with heat-trapping pollutants that are wrecking Earth’s atmosphere. Confused? Okay, let’s backtrack a little, before we get onto the exciting new discoveries made by PhD student Ming Ma from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. While this research sounds like a great way to get tipsy sans tipping – and hypothetically it could be – it’s actually all about repurposing the dangerous levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) that are sending global temperatures into places they really oughtn’t be going. Short of just figuring out ways to reduce our carbon emissions before climate change gets even more volatile and threatening, one of the things scientists around the world are currently busy researching is what’s called carbon capture.
Like the name suggests, this process involves various technologies for extracting carbon emissions from things like coal-fired power plants before they have a chance to drift away and escape into the atmosphere. One of the ways of doing this is what’s known as carbon capture and storage (CCS), in which treated atmospheric carbon can be pumped underground where over time it fuses into solid rock. But an emerging alternative to carbon sequestration called carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) may prove to be a lot more useful to humanity than just channeling our emissions into the ground.

Instead, CCU seeks to repurpose carbon dioxide into other chemicals that we can use, like baking soda, or alternative fuel sources. This is where that enjoy-in-moderation atmospheric alcohol comes in. What Ming Ma has done is come up a new method for controlling a process called electroreduction, which is used in CCU to turn CO2 into other kinds of molecules. Ma’s PhD thesis, which is being defended this week – one of the stages in receiving the academic qualification – describes at the nanoscale level how different metals used during electroreduction can be used to produce different chemical results. One example is copper nanowires, which can produce hydrocarbons from CO2, while nano-porous silver can produce CO. By changing these metals, and altering the lengths of the nanowires used for electroreduction, Ma found that the electric potential in the reaction can be tuned, meaning it’s possible to make any carbon-based product we want. Of course, we shouldn’t get too excited yet, because Ma’s PhD – and the peer-reviewing of his paper – is obviously still a work in progress, but the research suggests there could soon be new ways to manipulate CCU to produce all kinds of chemicals. Those products could include ethanol (C2H5OH) – the kind of alcohol we consume in alcoholic beverages – plus other forms such as methanol, and other molecules too, such as formic acid (HCOOH), which could help power fuel cells in the future. The next step for Ma and fellow researchers – other than Ma getting certified, that is – is to figure out ways to improve the selectivity of the molecules produced during electroreduction, as well as looking into how to scale up the process, so it could one day help CCU efforts in the real world. There’s a long way to go before we get there, maybe, but in light of all the good this research promises – CO2 mitigation, fuel cell production, not to mention carbon-neutral booze, people! – how could we not be down with this?

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