Corporate Banner
Satellite Banner
Scientific Communities
Become a Member | Sign in
Home>News>This Article

Stanford Scientists Discover a Novel Way to Make Ethanol Without Corn or Other Plants

Published: Saturday, April 12, 2014
Last Updated: Saturday, April 12, 2014
Bookmark and Share
Stanford scientists have created a copper-based catalyst that produces large quantities of ethanol from carbon monoxide gas at room temperature.

Stanford University scientists have found a new, highly efficient way to produce liquid ethanol from carbon monoxide gas. This promising discovery could provide an eco-friendly alternative to conventional ethanol production from corn and other crops, say the scientists. Their results are published in the April 9 advanced online edition of the journal Nature.

"We have discovered the first metal catalyst that can produce appreciable amounts of ethanol from carbon monoxide at room temperature and pressure - a notoriously difficult electrochemical reaction," said Matthew Kanan, an assistant professor of chemistry at Stanford and coauthor of the Nature study.

Most ethanol is produced at high-temperature fermentation facilities that chemically convert corn, sugarcane and other plants into liquid fuel. But growing crops for biofuel requires thousands of acres of land and vast quantities of fertilizer and water. In some parts of the United States, it takes more than 800 gallons of water to grow a bushel of corn, which, in turn, yields about 3 gallons of ethanol.

The new technique developed by Kanan and Stanford graduate student Christina Li requires no fermentation and, if scaled up, could help address many of the land- and water-use issues surrounding ethanol production today. "Our study demonstrates the feasibility of making ethanol by electrocatalysis," Kanan said. "But we have a lot more work to do to make a device that is practical."

Novel electrodes

Two years ago, Kanan and Li created a novel electrode made of a material they called oxide-derived copper. They used the term "oxide-derived" because the metallic electrode was produced from copper oxide.

"Conventional copper electrodes consist of individual nanoparticles that just sit on top of each other," Kanan said. "Oxide-derived copper, on the other hand, is made of copper nanocrystals that are all linked together in a continuous network with well-defined grain boundaries. The process of transforming copper oxide into metallic copper creates the network of nanocrystals."

For the Nature study, Kanan and Li built an electrochemical cell – a device consisting of two electrodes placed in water saturated with carbon monoxide gas. When a voltage is applied across the electrodes of a conventional cell, a current flows and water is converted to oxygen gas at one electrode (the anode) and hydrogen gas at the other electrode (the cathode). The challenge was to find a cathode that would reduce carbon monoxide to ethanol instead of reducing water to hydrogen.

"Most materials are incapable of reducing carbon monoxide and exclusively react with water," Kanan said. "Copper is the only exception, but conventional copper is very inefficient."

In the Nature experiment, Kanan and Li used a cathode made of oxide-derived copper. When a small voltage was applied, the results were dramatic.

"The oxide-derived copper produced ethanol and acetate with 57 percent faradaic efficiency," Kanan said. "That means 57 percent of the electric current went into producing these two compounds from carbon monoxide. We're excited because this represents a more than 10-fold increase in efficiency over conventional copper catalysts. Our models suggest that the nanocrystalline network in the oxide-derived copper was critical for achieving these results."

Carbon neutral

The Stanford team has begun looking for ways to create other fuels and improve the overall efficiency of the process. "In this experiment, ethanol was the major product," Kanan said. "Propanol would actually be a higher energy-density fuel than ethanol, but right now there is no efficient way to produce it."

In the experiment, Kanan and Li found that a slightly altered oxide-derived copper catalyst produced propanol with 10 percent efficiency. The team is working to improve the yield for propanol by further tuning the catalyst's structure.

Ultimately, Kanan would like to see a scaled-up version of the catalytic cell powered by electricity from the sun, wind or other renewable resource.

For the process to be carbon neutral, scientists will have to find a new way to make carbon monoxide from renewable energy instead of fossil fuel, the primary source today. Kanan envisions taking carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere to produce carbon monoxide, which, in turn, would be fed to a copper catalyst to make liquid fuel. The CO2 that is released into the atmosphere during fuel combustion would be re-used to make more carbon monoxide and more fuel - a closed-loop, emissions-free process.

"Technology already exists for converting CO2 to carbon monoxide, but the missing piece was the efficient conversion of carbon monoxide to a useful fuel that's liquid, easy to store and nontoxic," Kanan said. "Prior to our study, there was a sense that no catalyst could efficiently reduce carbon monoxide to a liquid. We have a solution to this problem that's made of copper, which is cheap and abundant. We hope our results inspire other people to work on our system or develop a new catalyst that converts carbon monoxide to fuel."

Further Information
Access to this exclusive content is for Technology Networks Premium members only.

Join Technology Networks Premium for free access to:

  • Exclusive articles
  • Presentations from international conferences
  • Over 2,600+ scientific posters on ePosters
  • More Than 3,800+ scientific videos on LabTube
  • 35 community eNewsletters

Sign In

Forgotten your details? Click Here
If you are not a member you can join here

*Please note: By logging into you agree to accept the use of cookies. To find out more about the cookies we use and how to delete them, see our privacy policy.

Related Content

Drug Disarms Deadly C. difficile Bacteria Without Destroying Healthy Gut Flora
A drug that blocks the intestinal pathogen without killing resident, beneficial microbes may prove superior to antibiotics, currently the front-line treatment for the infection.
Friday, September 25, 2015
Virus Re-Engineered to Deliver Targeted Therapies
Researchers stripped a virus of its infectious machinery and turned its benign core into a delivery vehicle that can target sick cells while leaving healthy tissue alone.
Thursday, September 24, 2015
Combination Drug Therapy Shrinks Pancreatic Tumors In Mice
Two drugs that affect the structure and function of DNA have been found to block the growth of pancreatic tumor cells in mice, researchers hope the drugs can soon be tested in humans with the disease.
Thursday, September 24, 2015
Delivering Missing Protein Heals Damaged Hearts in Animals
Researchers have discovered that a particular protein, Fstl1, plays a key role in regenerating dead heart-muscle cells.
Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Key Mechanism in Gene Expression Discovered
RNA polymerase II makes life possible by expressing genes. Now, a team of Stanford biologists, chemists and applied physicists has observed it at work in real time.
Thursday, September 17, 2015
Drug Prevents Type 1 Diabetes In Mice
A compound that blocks the synthesis of hyaluronan, a substance generally found in in all body tissue, protected mice from getting Type 1 diabetes. The compound is already approved in Europe and Asia for the treatment of gallbladder disease.
Wednesday, September 16, 2015
New Method for Producing Vital Cancer Drug
Stanford scientists produced a common cancer drug – previously only available from an endangered plant – in a common laboratory plant.
Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Scientists Home In On Origin Of Human, Chimpanzee Facial Differences
A study of species-specific regulation of gene expression in chimps and humans has identified regions important in human facial development and variation.
Monday, September 14, 2015
X-ray Laser Experiment Could Help in Designing Drugs for Brain Disorders
Scientists found that when two protein structures in the brain join up, they act as an amplifier for a slight increase in calcium concentration, triggering a gunshot-like release of neurotransmitters from one neuron to another.
Monday, August 24, 2015
Researchers Develop qPCR Prognosis Test for NSCLC Patients
A nine-gene molecular prognostic index (MPI) for patients with early-stage non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) was able to provide accurate survival stratification and could potentially inform the use of adjuvant therapy in patients struggling with the disease.
Thursday, August 20, 2015
Scientists Genetically Modify Yeast to Produce Opioids
The technique could improve access to medicines in impoverished nations, and later be used to develop treatments for other diseases.
Monday, August 17, 2015
Identifying Defective Heart Genes
A new technique could eventually enable doctors to diagnose genetic heart diseases by rapidly scanning more than 85 genes known to cause cardiac anomalies.
Thursday, August 13, 2015
Elusive Liver Stem Cell Identified in Mice by Researchers
Researchers have found a previously unknown population of cells in mice that function as liver stem cells. The finding could aid drug testing and increase understanding of liver biology and disease.
Friday, August 07, 2015
Rescuing Genetic Material from Formaldehyde Treated Tissue Samples
Formaldehyde is excellent for preserving cellular structures, but it makes it difficult to pull genetic information from tissue samples. Eric Kool and colleagues have developed a catalyst that saves RNA, which could lead to better patient outcomes.
Tuesday, August 04, 2015
Women’s Immune System Genes Operate Differently from Men’s
A new technology reveals that immune system genes switch on and off differently in women and men, and the source of that variation is not primarily in the DNA.
Friday, July 31, 2015
Scientific News
13 Ways to Stop an Unseen Force from Disrupting Weighing
Download a free Mettler Toledo paper to discover how to halt static’s negative effects before the next weigh-in.
Flinders Ig Nobel Winner Cracks Global Anaesthetic
One of the world’s most in-demand anaesthetics can now be produced on the spot, thanks to the thermos-flask sized device that recently won Flinders University inventor Professor Colin Raston an Ig Nobel prize.
Resurrected Proteins Double Their Natural Activity
Researchers demonstrate method for reviving denatured proteins.
Genes That Protect African Children From Developing Malaria Identified
Variations in DNA at a specific location on the genome that protect African children from developing severe malaria, in some cases nearly halving a child’s chance of developing the life-threatening disease, have been identified in the largest genetic association study of malaria to date.
Messing With The Monsoon
Manmade aerosols can alter rainfall in the world’s most populous region.
Potential Target for Treatment of Autism
Grant of $2.4 million will support further research.
Scientists Decode Structure at Root of Muscular Disease
Researchers at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine have unlocked the structural details of a protein seen as key to treating a neuromuscular disease.
Sniffing Out Cancer
Scientists have been exploring new ways to “smell” signs of cancer by analyzing what’s in patients’ breath.
New Test Detects All Viruses
A new test detects virtually any virus that infects people and animals, according to research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where the technology was developed.
Inroads Against Leukemia
Potential for halting disease in molecule isolated from sea sponges.
Scroll Up
Scroll Down
Skyscraper Banner

Skyscraper Banner
Go to LabTube
Go to eposters
Access to the latest scientific news
Exclusive articles
Upload and share your posters on ePosters
Latest presentations and webinars
View a library of 1,800+ scientific and medical posters
2,600+ scientific and medical posters
A library of 2,500+ scientific videos on LabTube
3,800+ scientific videos