Ethanol from carbon dioxide is still a losing proposition

Categories: Big picture
Published on: October 28, 2016

EnergyTrends Insider / Robert Rapier / 27 October 2016

Earlier this month a research paper was published by the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) called High-Selectivity Electrochemical Conversion of CO2 to Ethanol using a Copper Nanoparticle/N-Doped Graphene Electrode. The paper reports on some truly interesting science, and the researchers were measured and cautious in their conclusions.

But something got lost in translation as media outlets sought to portray this as a “holy grail,” “game changer,” “major breakthrough” or “solution to climate change.” The benefits, one story said, were unimaginable. Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that the press release from the Department of Energy was titled Scientists Accidentally Turned CO2 Into Ethanol.

The word “accidental” plays into the misconception people have of how science is done. Many take the romantic view that game-changing, eureka discoveries are merely awaiting the next lucky accident, so when they read this headline the translation becomes something like “New Discovery Solves Climate Change.”

That’s because the public loves its energy miracles. People love the idea of a car that can run on water or the car that gets 400 miles per gallon (which of course GM and Ford suppressed) or the magic pill you can pop in your tank that greatly enhances fuel efficiency. So it isn’t surprising that this kind of story goes viral (in notable contrast to the articles debunking these viral stories.)

In order to understand what’s really going on, let’s consider a fundamental principle of thermodynamics.

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