Matthew Kanan, an assistant professor of chemistry at Stanford University, and Stanford graduate student Christina Li announced their discovery of a catalyst that can convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into ethanol according to their report in the April 9, 2014, issue of the journal Nature.
The heart of the discovery is an electrode made from copper oxide. The chemical structure of copper oxide produces a network of copper nanocrystals that can convert carbon monoxide to ethanol at a high enough rate through electrolysis to be industrially useful.
The researchers propose a system that takes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converts it to carbon monoxide for use in producing ethanol. The electric source for the electrolytic cells could be solar, wind, or waves.
The researchers have developed a working prototype that can be scaled to industrial size that can supply as much ethanol as corn or any other plant source.
The environmental impact could be tremendous in the removal of a major source of global warming from the atmosphere. The process also reduces the amount of water and fertilizer needed to grow plants to make ethanol.
Practical considerations would indicate a reduction in the price of corn, a reduction in the price of some foods like meat, and a potential decrease in gasoline prices. This change could produce an increased subsidy to corn growers, ethanol producers, and the cattle industry.
One aspect of the development may impact the security of the United States from terrorist threats. Any reasonable terrorist would be seeking a disease that would decimate the U. S. corn crop. If and when the U. S. becomes dependent on ethanol a more secure source than plants that could be more easily protected from attack is reasonable.