Ethanol may be touted as a more eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuels, but it’s not without its own drawbacks. Most importantly, the corn or other plants required as feedstock often take up field space that could otherwise be put to use growing food crops. Also, as with other plants, the feedstock crops require large amounts of water and fertilizer. Now, however, scientists at Stanford University have devised a method of producing liquid ethanol from carbon monoxide gas.
The technology was developed by assistant professor of chemistry Matthew Kanan and graduate student Christina Li. Whereas plant-based ethanol is obtained through a fermentation process, their technique involves taking water saturated with carbon monoxide gas, and placing it in an electrochemical cell at room temperature.
Like other fuel cells, theirs has two electrodes (an anode and a cathode), which an electrical current flows between. In the case of a hydrogen fuel cell, the application of that current would convert ordinary water contained within the cell into oxygen gas and hydrogen gas. By using a cathode made of oxide-derived copper, however, Kanan and Li were able to reduce the carbon monoxide in their water into ethanol and acetate.
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