Pie in the sky? Researchers say they found a CO2 to Fuel catalyst

Researchers find a surprise just beneath the surface in carbon dioxide experiment

Caltech, Berkeley Lab teams combines theory, X-ray experiments to explain what’s at work in copper catalyst


In a classic tale of science taking twists and turns before coming to a conclusion, two teams of researchers–one a group of theorists and the other, experimentalists–have worked together to solve a chemical puzzle that may one day lead to cleaner air and renewable fuel. The scientists’ ultimate goal is to convert harmful carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere into beneficial liquid fuel. Currently, it is possible to make fuels out of CO2–plants do it all the time–but researchers are still trying to crack the problem of artificially producing the fuels at large enough scales to be useful.

In a new study published the week of June 12 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), researchers report the mechanics behind an early key step in artificially activating CO2 so that it can rearrange itself to become the liquid fuel ethanol. Theorists at Caltech used quantum mechanics to predict what was happening at atomic scales, while experimentalists at the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (Berkeley Lab) used X-ray studies to analyze the steps of the chemical reaction.

The scientists are part of the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP), a DOE Energy Innovation Hub, whose goal is to convert CO2 into high-value chemical products like liquid fuels. JCAP is led by Caltech in partnership with Berkeley Lab, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), and UC campuses at San Diego and Irvine.

“One of our tasks is to determine the exact sequence of steps for breaking apart water and CO2 into atoms and piecing them back together to form ethanol and oxygen,” says William Goddard (PhD ’65), the Charles and Mary Ferkel Professor of Chemistry, Materials Science, and Applied Physics, who led the Caltech team. “With these new studies, we have better ideas about how to do that.”

The metal copper is at the heart of the reaction for converting CO2 to fuel. Copper is a catalyst–a material used to activate and speed up chemical reactions–and, while it aids in the production of ethanol when exposed to CO2 and water, it is not efficient enough to make large quantities of ethanol. At Berkeley Lab, researchers exposed a thin foil sheet of copper to CO2 gas and water at room temperature. They found that the copper bound CO2 weakly and that adding water activated the CO2 by bending it into the shape needed to ultimately form the ethanol. However, when the theorists at Caltech used quantum mechanics and computer models to predict the atomic-level details of this reaction, they found that pure copper would not bind the CO2 and that water would not activate it.

This false-color image, produced with scanning electron microscopy, shows microscopic details on the surface of a copper foil that was used as a catalyst in a chemical reaction studied at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source. The scale bar represents 50 microns, or millionths of a meter.
CREDIT Berkeley Lab

This left both teams scratching their heads until they noticed that the copper in the experiments contained tiny amounts of oxygen beneath its surface. The theorists went back to their quantum mechanics equations, adding in a tiny amount of sub-surface oxygen, and were happy to find their calculations all agreed with the experiments.

“We do our experiments virtually in computers,” says JCAP research scientist Hai Xiao (PhD ’15). “And this allows us to trace how the electrons and atoms rearrange themselves in the reaction, and thus unravel the correlation between the fundamental structure and the activity.”

The theorists also predicted that when too much oxygen was present, the CO2 would not be activated. Indeed, when the experimentalists deliberately added extra oxygen into the mix, this prediction was confirmed.

“This back and forth between theory and experiment is an exciting aspect of modern research and an important part of the JCAP strategy for making fuels from CO2,” says Goddard.

Subsequent X-ray studies helped further narrow down the role of the oxygen in the reaction. “Having oxygen atoms just beneath the surface–a suboxide layer–is a critical aspect to this,” says Ethan Crumlin, a scientist at Berkeley Lab. “The X-ray work brought new clarity to determining the right amount of this subsurface oxygen–and its role in interactions with CO2 gas and water–to improve the reaction.”

The scientists say that the presence of the oxygen in the copper causes some of the copper to become positively charged and this, in turn, stabilizes the CO2 so that it can bind to water and take on the bent configuration essential to eventually making ethanol.

Based on the new findings, the Caltech researchers then used quantum mechanics to predict ways to make the reaction even more efficient. In a second paper published this week in PNAS, they report that a copper surface that is striped with both neutral and positively charged copper will better speed the reaction along. The team is now using this strategy, called a Metal-Embedded-in-Oxygen-Matrix (MEOM), to predict the best oxide material–either copper or something new–to place next to the neutral copper strips to achieve the fastest reaction.

“Quantum mechanics lets us find the best ways to arrange the atoms and takes us closer to the goal of converting carbon dioxide to fuels and other useful materials,” says Goddard.


The first PNAS paper, titled “Subsurface oxide plays a critical role in CO2 activation by Cu(111) surfaces to form chemisorbed CO2, the first step in reduction of CO2,” is authored by Crumlin, Marco Favaro, and Junko Yano of Berkeley Lab; and Xiao, Goddard, and Tao Cheng of Caltech.

The second PNAS paper, titled “The Cu Metal Embedded in Oxidized Matrix Catalyst to Promote CO2 Activation and CO Dimerization for Efficient and Selective Electrochemical Reduction of CO2,” was authored by Xiao, Goddard, Cheng, and Yuanyue Liu, a Resnick Sustainability Institute Postdoctoral Scholar at Caltech.

This research was supported by the DOE Office of Basic Energy Science and by JCAP.


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How do they just enrich the harmful CO2 out if the atmosphere and leave all the beneficial CO2 behind?


“The scientists’ ultimate goal is to convert harmful carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere into beneficial liquid fuel. Harmful carbon dioxide? This article was interesting, but when I read that, I know I rolled my eyes.

David Chappell

That’s the point I decided to read no more. No doubt I have denied myself some valuable knowledge, but…

Chris Wright

I stopped reading when it stated that CO2 is “harmful”.
What utter nonsense. These morons demonise the very thing that makes the planet green.

Crispin in Waterloo

Chris Wright
I didn’t stop reading, I just wondered what such a silly statement was in a scientific article.
Reviewers should insist that inane asides be removed from scientific reports. The article was otherwise normal’ and useful’. Why not leave it at that. No one is convinced that CO2 is a harmful substance that should be removed from the atmosphere.
Next they will be calling it a ‘toxic gas’. Toxic emanations come from the mouths of zealots.


If only nature had a way of taking CO2 out of the atmosphere and turning it into large quantities of useful liquid fuel, we’d have it made.


CO2 is toxic to animals in high enough concentrations. It is also a greenhouse gas and partially responsible for global warming, acidification of the world’s oceans, etc. Obviously, it would be unwise to pull all of the CO2 out of our atmosphere (as all plant life would subsequently parish, followed closely by all animal life), but if innovations like this can help us manage CO2 levels in a way that also helps us produce fuel, then why not?
Of course, microbiologists pretty much have this covered already…


I mean “perish”.

Paul Penrose

Everything is toxic in high enough concentrations. The big question is: what is the optimal amount of CO2 in the atmosphere? Seems like that would be a good thing to know; critical maybe. Yet, I can’t recall anybody actually trying to determine the answer.


Chuck, the exact same criticisms could be made of dihydrogen monoxide. Toxic to animals in high quantities, greenhouse gas, contributes to ocean acidification and global warming.
None of those things make water in the atmosphere ‘harmful’.


“and were happy to find their calculations all agreed with the experiments.”
Now thats something that the IPCC should sit up and take notice.
Empirical evidence supporting a hypothesis – Wow!
Do you know that one can run a car on water?
Yes way!
Its not a problem.
You take the water and add a little sulphuric acid and feed an electric current through it. Who hasn’t done that during high school science?
The resulting Hydrogen and Oxygen can be decanted off and there you have a fuel.
Well the catch is that producing the fuel will use more energy than the car’s engine produces – no matter how many generators one connects up.
So might as well stick to good ole petrol.
Well I suspect that these people want to harness some new fangled windmills to make this fuel. Of course it would be cheaper to plug the cars straight into the windmills, but hey – extention cords are expensive.
The moral of this story is, no matter how smart you are, that you do not get an energetic fuel at no cost, unless the earth has done it for us over millions of years.


Chuck June 13, 2017 at 8:36 am
That it’s a greenhouse gas is a good thing, although there is no actual evidence of its having warmed the earth’s actual climate system. Arrhenius and Callendar in the last century considered AGW beneficial, as of course so is CO2 fertilization of the planet. There is no good reason to reduce CO2 in the air up to about 1200 ppm, ie triple the current level.


The trouble is, once you notice the inherit value of a CO2 its brothers everywhere become the same value

“Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis”
As I recall from school, photosynthesis requires the input of energy. I expect that the process being investigated is, “Use energy to make energy.” Even so, it may wind up being a way to store energy from renewables, but I doubt that it would be economically worthwhile. But, we’ll see.

RogertheSurf: Of course it would be cheaper to plug the cars straight into the windmills, but hey – extention cords are expensive.
If the catalyst can be made cheaply enough and the process is efficient enough, then the fuel can be made cheaply enough to compare the transportation costs of the fuel and the electricity, and to compare the relative merits of fuel and batteries as storage media. This isn’t coming to market any time soon, I bet, but long term, can we say it’s impossible?


Dude, you nailed it — this was the post everyone else saw in their heads when they read the article.

Old England

and when global vegetation levels start to fall and deserts again expand what will they say then ?

You know what they’ll say. They will say we aren’t pulling the CO2 out fast enough and seek emergency funding to build more atmospheric scrubber plants. These people are literally dribbling cretins.


Harmful CO2 comes from coal fired power stations.
The stuff we breath out is A OK.


And all of the CO2 that will be created by burning the fuel created using this new process, will it be good CO2 or bad CO2?
“Dorothy, Are you a good witch or a bad witch?”
How much energy is required to make this process work? The copper is only a catalyst.


CO2 Laundering

Bad CO2 molecules could be determined by the “thoughts” of specific electrons that “experienced” the mechanisms from which they arose first hand. Of course, we must first, dispense with the Copenhagen Interpretation, in order to open up the possibility of subatomic proto-consciousness, but, hey, this is right in line with the mythology, right?

Rhoda R

I almost stopped reading at that point. What a bunch of baloney.


… it’s all in their spin!

george e. smith

Well I think it could be made to work quite effectively.
You pump the plentiful man made excess CO2 down a fracked oil well in a place like North Dakota, and it would drive out the oil into the recovery pipeline, and encarcerating the excess CO2 at the same time.
Oil has been found to be a quite usable fuel source.

george e. smith

I can see how it would work quite well.
If you pump the excess man made CO2 down a fracked well in say North Dakota, you could pump out some oil, which I think would make a good source of fuel.


Fine… but where will the energy come from to convert the CO2 into ethanol? If they think they are going to simply convert CO2 into ethanol without energy being consumed they should have their science degrees taken away. This only makes sense once all fossil fuels from the ground have become too scarce and too expensive to use, or we have an abundant and reliable and inexpensive energy source (such as nuclear power) and CO2 has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the levels in our atmosphere are very detrimental to our planet. So far, neither case is any where close to reality… and In fact, even higher CO2 levels than now are quite likely to be beneficial.

From burning coal, of course 🙂

Stan Vinson

Every generation of humans has their “Harry Potter” moment. Here they describe a reaction that produces energy without an input of energy. Kinda like Harry Potter and his magic wand, or government money that materializes out of thin air.


“…or government money that materializes out of thin air.”
To be fair, that does happen fairly often.


It’s called printing presses.

Berndt Koch

ok people you’re all missing the easy solution…
1) Burn oil or coal to get electricity
2) This will also make CO2 (of the evil variety)
3) run the CO2 made from the burning of coal or oil through the process to make Ethanol using the electricity made from the burning of oil or coal
4) sit back, relax and rake in the money and platitudes from everyone for solving the evil CO2 problem
simple when you apply a little logic…
Here is a free cut out and keep sarc tag if required
=========== cut here =======================
=========== cut here =======================

And what are the energy losses in the process?


There is no mention of energy input, but of course, energy would have to be added. In the case of photosynthesis, that energy comes from the sun. It’s a very inefficient reaction, but it’s what nature has evolved over time. I would encourage this kind of research. Whether CO2 “good” or “bad” is irrelevant. it’s a huge potential source of a raw material. However, it will be a tough climb. I wish them luck. Maybe some day, the energy required could come from those thousands of wind turbines and solar panels we are installing around the globe. I think those who mock this kind of work would have scoffed at the Haber process before it proved successful.

Samuel C Cogar

There is no mention of energy input
Sure there was, and it was most probably “fossil fuel” generated, ….. to wit:

“The X-ray work brought new clarity to determining the right amount of this subsurface oxygen–and its role in interactions with CO2 gas and water–to improve the reaction.”


No energy losses. “We do our experiments virtually on computers”. Sounds like a grant grabbing exercise in futility.


“There is no mention of energy input, but of course, energy would have to be added. In the case of photosynthesis, that energy comes from the sun. It’s a very inefficient reaction, but it’s what nature has evolved over time.”
It’s so inefficient that the only to make it work effectively is to do something extreme like cover the entire arable land surface of the Earth with green, living things.


The article was an example of how science is supposed to work. In their model, the determined that if they added extra oxygen, the reactions slowed down a lot.
So they went back to their physical experiments. Replicated the scenario that they had modeled, and confirmed that the reactions did indeed slow down.
Using physical experiments to confirm the predictions of the model. Excellent work.

Crispin in Waterloo

Agreed, it was a fine piece of work. The only detraction was the opening gambit where they mischaracterised CO2. I hope the reaction works to produce ‘cold’ which can be compensated by heating it with ambient air. In that manner it can work wherever it is hot.
Never say never.
They might be better off making methanol. Just a suggestion…


“Energy from weather” will one day power the planet. We truly have regressed to alchemy and sorcery. Five hundred years of progress wiped out by the search for a perpetual motion machine. Humans are so good at devolving……

Bob Smith

MarkW: “Using physical experiments to confirm the predictions of the model. Excellent work.”
A concept alien to many climate scientists: The predictions of models should be confirmed by physical evidence.

Don K

You’re thinking that Conservation of Energy might apply here? However are we going to save the planet if we allow negative thinking like that?


Agreed. As I noted above, we still believe in a perpetual motion machine and now we use government funding to search for it.


“The scientists’ ultimate goal is to convert harmful carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere into beneficial liquid fuel.”
Only the second sentence and they are taking their brains out in public and stomping on them.
No mention of the conditions need for this catalyst to work. Imagine all the copper and other metals and the problems of contamination and lost efficiency that would be involved. This stands to be even less efficient than all the other biofuel programs, broken window economies, using more energy to make then they get back when burned. The only way to win is not to play.
We have plants all around us converting CO2 to higher carbon structures and these clowns think they can compete with that.
Of course, you can calculate the chemical energy content of methanol versus CO2 and clearly determine the minimum energy required per gram or mole. Then, to be practical, assume only 20% efficiency and you have an idea of the input.


Solar power and wind mills, obviously.

convert CO2 into ethanol without energy … should have their science degrees taken away
my thoughts exactly. a catalyst reduces the activation energy for a reaction, but it cannot change the net energy of the reaction. a catalyst works sort of like a match starting a fire. it cannot take smoke and ash and turn it back into wood.comment image

Michael darby

Re-read the article. Pay very close attention to the title of the 2nd paper: “……..Efficient and Selective Electrochemical Reduction of CO2”

Now, doesn’t it take energy to reduce CO2 electrochemically?

Crispin in Waterloo

The reaction could result in the products having a low temperature, to the tune of 27 or MJ/kg. Just because it ‘takes energy’ does not mean one has to put in electrical energy. I am not saying that this is the case for this particular method, just that a chemical reaction might result in hot byproducts, or cold ones.
A ‘perfect process’ for ethanol would be a reaction that is driven by low grade heat such as a warm day. Yes, it would be slow, but that doesn’t mean it is expensive in terms of energy. There is a great deal of low grade thermal energy available on this planet.
If the concept has escaped any reader here consider LPG. When it is used, the evaporation of the liquid propane is ‘powered’ by ambient heat from the room. The tank temperature drops as the gas evaporates, and the tank is heated by the local air. We may not notice that the process is cooling the local environment.
It may be possible to produce ethanol or methanol or butanol using a process that is slowly driven by ambient heat energy because the reaction produces a low temperature product. That conserves the energy. When the fuel is burned, the heat gained from the ambient air is released suddenly in a concentrated form making lots of things possible, like driving to the stove to buy something to put on the barbie.

Don K

And I’m guessing that it catalyzes the reverse reaction as well which suggests that it might be a good idea not to store spare catalyst anywhere near flammable hydrocarbons.


only requires a fairly simple economic catalyst.
G$ = (delta(H))x(k)x(S)x(t)$ + P$
where S is the subsidized cost of energy change & k is the conversion coefficient;
where P is the required profit for the project
& where G is the cost of convincing the government to implement the required subsidy (S);
the system remains stable when 0.02<G/S<0.05, but as G/S begins to approach 0.01 the system begins to spiral out of control & Al Gore begins to approach 350 lb.
as G/S begins to approach 0.1 the snowflakes begin to melt; at 0.2 the socialists & fascists begin to spend every other weekend protesting in the streets.
Note: I spent as much effort/research on this analysis as does Paul Krugman on anything/everything he writes about.

Richard Bell

You were so close to the established process for converting atmospheric CO2 to useful fuel, that it deserves the metaphor that you could not see the forest for the trees!
Coppice trees for charcoal (carbon) and then burn some of the charcoal to supply the energy the Fischer-Tropsch process needs to make hydrocarbon fuels (or whatever process best starts with a felled tree and ends up with liquid hydrocarbon fuel).
To improve the end-to-end efficiency, instead of burning the fuel to release heat that is converted to mechanical work, use it as fuel for a hydrocarbon fuel cell. We may have to wait for atmospheric CO2 to hit levels where trees grow faster to replace fossil fuels, but stretching out the fossil fuels by switching to hydrocarbon fuel cells will allow many cars to be powered with renewables, while fitting the alarmists’ definition of carbon neutral.

Killer Marmot

Yes, a description of the thermodynamics of the reaction would have been appreciated. Like you, I was left wondering where the energy comes from.

Patrick B

Exactly right – unless they are creating energy out of matter, they can’t get a molecule with more energy than they put into it. It appears they must not have any real chemists involved in the project.


Good one, Al. I have had a number of people ask me why we can’t just take the oxygen off the carbon and get rid of the “CO2 problem.” I then ask, “Why burn it in the first place?” You end up with a net loss in energy, a catalyst goes not change that.


Try reading the article it is about PHOTOSYNTHESIS

Stevan M Reddish

I am thinking energy must be applied somewhere in the process of producing ethanol from CO2, so no matter how they huff and puff, nature’s way (photosynthesis) will be better.

The path from carbon dioxide to methanol is a multi electronic reduction reaction with 6 electron. I dont see any possible oxygen positive effect in that process.

Ike Kiefer

Misleading article makes it sound finding the right catalyst is all you need. Of course the reaction is hugely endothermic and all that external energy must come from high-quality, high density energy sources. CO2 and water must be chemically unburned back into their constituent fuel and oxidizer.
Also silly to go to all that work to make ethanol. Should proceed to pure liquid hydrocarbons. Only reason for making inferior ethanol is to harvest subsidies such as EPA RINs.

Steamboat McGoo

Ike Kiefer – ” CO2 and water must be chemically unburned back into their constituent fuel and oxidizer. ”
Unburned!!! Excellent phrasing and imagery! Tells it exactly how it is and forcibly emphasizes that “we gotta put all that heat BACK to make the molecule.
As Robert A. Heinlein said in ‘The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress’, “TANSTAAFL* !”
* There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch!

what they are looking for is an un-match. once lighted, the un-match it will take smoke and ash and turn it back into wood. when applied over large enough areas, the un-match will take large areas of burned out forests and turn them back into thriving areas of mature trees.
the un-match currently exists. it is called a tree.


They only get subsidies for bio sourced ethanol. We already have companies that can produce ethanol from natural gas, but it not only won’t get subsidies, it is effectively illegal to use in gasoline blends.

Ben of Houston

Making a single C-C bond is a lot simpler than making lots of different ones, and ethanol can be easily turned into ethylene, which is a wonderful ingredient needed in countless chemical processes. If you have the energy to do this, you shouldn’t be using it to make cheap fuel. That’s foolsih.

Very interesting research. Doing it in a lab or on a computer is different to real life, especially industrial scale.
It’s a few decades since I was a chemical engineer, so I might be rusty. To reverse the combustion process of ethanol to water and CO2 you have to put at least as much energy back in. So the only advantage to this process would occur when we have surplus solar or wind energy to make it work.
Then there is the small detail of how do you suck the minute amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere to run the process?
I’m not saying this is not an interesting reaction, just that it is not likely to prove to be a useful energy source on a big scale.


It is not an energy source. It is a battery that can convert sunlight into liquid fuel that can be easily stored and used for cars etc. This has nothing to do with climate but rather the fact that once fossil fuels are depleted there are only two possible energy sources – solar and fusion. Both require means to store and transport the energy and liquid fuels have by far the best energy density by several orders of magnitude.


Hydrothermal/Geothermal? But ultimately that is nuclear as well.


neither hydrothermal or geothermal can supply enough energy to allow everyone on earth
to enjoy the same living standards as they currently do. The only long term solutions for our
energy needs are solar and fusion. The first we know how to do the second we don’t. So no matter what we need to invest in solar energy since currently it is the only solution for the coming energy crisis.

Steamboat McGoo

What happened to dams & generators?


There are enough fissionable fuels to sustain humanity until the sun blows up. No shortage of energy, ultimately it will all be nuke (thorium and uranium)

michael hart

Seconded. Especially the comment “then there is the small detail of how do you suck the minute amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere to run the process?”
Analogously, we already have the technology to extract gold from seawater. We don’t do it because the high dilution makes it simply not worthwhile compared to other sources.

H. D. Hoese

Copper is a very interesting element, also in seawater, sometimes toxic, but essential, as in some seafood. Did they not know their physical chemistry that well?

David Chappell

Just harvest all that CO2 that’s released every time a can of beer or fizzy pop is opened.


Are you volunteering?


I am doing my best. And I store it the liquid grain storage facility I carry with me. Right out front where I can monitor it!

Roger Graves

“To reverse the combustion process of ethanol to water and CO2 you have to put at least as much energy back in. So the only advantage to this process would occur when we have surplus solar or wind energy to make it work.
Then there is the small detail of how do you suck the minute amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere to run the process?”
In one of my eureka moments I have solved the whole problem. We use catalysts called ‘trees’, which suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and then combine this with water using naturally occurring solar power to create a hydrocarbon fuel called ‘wood’. We can then run all our railways on this new miracle fuel by combusting the wood to create steam.
Do I get a Nobel prize for this?


Add a few more unnecessary acronyms and I think you’ve got yourself a proposal.


To catch that brass ring, you are going to need a model to show how well the process is going to work. However, you need to be sure that the “…and then a miracle happens” subroutine/module is maintained as secret and proprietary code.
Throw in some dodgy inverted proxy parameters, and you are going to be golden!


Where does the CO2 come from??? You attach a very big hose to those CO2 belching, smelly smokestacks of the coal-burning fossil fuel fired generating plants. Win-win.

Crispin in Waterloo

Do not use air as the CO2 source. Use a power station or a vehicle. Also there is a lot of CO2 in the ocean.


1. Ethanol is a fuel. Combine with oxygen and you get water + CO2 + energy.
2. In order to make Ethanol from water and CO2 you need an essential third ingredient – ENERGY
Since the energy required for 2) will be greater than 1) that makes this system an energy storage system. That is you store the energy by using it to combine water + CO2 to make ethanol and then release it by burning the ethanol.
How efficient it is depends upon how much more energy you need for 2) than you get from 1).
Even if it is exactly the same that still means you will get less energy out than you put in because you will lose 50 to 75% of the energy just from burning the ethanol.
As an example, if the efficiency of 2) is X and you used 1GWh from wind turbines to combine water + CO2 and then used that ethanol to burn and generate electricity this is what you would get for various values of X (assuming ethanol -> electricity is 50% efficient)
X = 100%, 0.5 GWh
X = 75% 0.375 GWh
X = 50% 0.25 GWh

“This left both teams scratching their heads until they noticed that the copper in the experiments contained tiny amounts of oxygen beneath its surface. The theorists went back to their quantum mechanics equations, adding in a tiny amount of sub-surface oxygen, and were happy to find their calculations all agreed with the experiments.
“We do our experiments virtually in computers,” says JCAP research scientist Hai Xiao (PhD ’15). “And this allows us to trace how the electrons and atoms rearrange themselves in the reaction, and thus unravel the correlation between the fundamental structure and the activity.”
They didnt falsfiy their model, they improved it.
Experiments? in computers? Yup

Curious George

The experiment falsified their model, showing the need to improve it. How does that work for climate models?

Crispin in Waterloo

Mosh, gotta agree with Curious on this one.
They took their model output to the experiment to compare. The model was then modified to reflect what was probably happening in real life. I have not noticed climate modelers doing that. They presume CO2 has a high impact on temperature, ignore Willis and Svensmark, then ‘tune’ things until the output is a better match. The key difference is the experimentalists tried very hard to get a complete picture of what actually produced the results, and were not enslaved to a defective causal mechanism with pre-quantified factors.
It is fascinating to me, in a morbid curiosity sort of way, that climate modelers can remain so ideologically committed in the face of serial failure over decades. The humiliating example of the team on Victoria, Canada, is a prime example. The central purpose of their model is to keep the IPCC’s ‘model average’ high to maintain the narrative that CO2 is dangerously warming. They refuse to follow even the most basic back-and-forth that would bring their climate predictions into the realm of normal existence.

john harmsworth

Mosh? Crickets!!


There was a feedback loop Mosher.
Model -> experiment -> model -> experiment – model -> experiment
Totally unlike your totally worthless open-ended computer games climate models that you set such store by.
That’s the difference between proper scientific researchers and English majors pretending to be scientists, you see.


While the headline (and most of the article) shows that “science by press release” doesn’t care about inconvenient thermodynamics details like conservation of energy, the scientific results are very interesting. One of the biggest problems of “alternaive” energies is the mismatch of demand and supply. You can’t just pile excess electricity on a big heap for later use! At least 80 to 90 % of the claimed green energy production is simply wasted.
An efficient large scale way to turn that excess into easy to store and transport liquid fuel (or gas in case you produce methane) make much more sense than batteries or even pumped-storage power plants.


One of the most efficient ways to store excess electricity (ca. 25-30 % loss) is the use of pumped-storage power plants.
To level out the mismatch of solar and wind during 2016 in Germany alone would have required a storage capacity of 6,7 TWh! This is equivalent of > 6000 average sized pumped-storage power plants.


I have doubts about your figures… but the Germans are certainly constructing pumped storage – e.g.:
and linking their grid to Norway, where current hydro may be enhanced with pumped storage.


@ Griff
What do you doubt?
25-30 % loss by PSP-plants; 6,7 TWh minimum storage or slightly more than 1 GWh average capacity of PSP-plants ?
By specific!


Large pump,efficiency up to 75%
Turbine, ditto.
Large motor, up to 94%
Generator ditto.
Multiply it out and get very close to 50%.
NOT efficient. Requires double the number of wind turbines.

Michael darby

I am unimpressed by the use of the non sequitor “harmful CO2”

“…convert HARMFUL carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere into BENEFICIAL liquid fuel.”
Yeah, that made me throw up a little – heavy handed unfathomable pinheadery…

Andrew Burnette

No kidding. What’s so beneficial about liquid fuel in the writer’s mind? They probably hate gasoline, etc. if its from the “wrong” source. Pure propaganda.


Now they won’t have to buy heavily regulated grain alcohol for lab parties. They can make their own liquid refreshments. That’s where the benefits are.


I do not want to hang around if the process can be commercialized. CO2 is an essential nutrient.
Imagine the huge atmospheric intake and gas velocities required to to extract the tiny trace of CO2.


@ Peter
The CO2 would not come out of the atmosphere. They “make” it by burning coal or processing lime stone.


Ha. The one bit of science where I as a scientist would say “meh” is posted on WUWT without any snarky comments. Interesting!

Stopped reading at “harmful CO2″…


This actually looks like an interesting way of storing solar energy. I think it all depends on how efficiently CO2 can be extracted from the atmosphere, and of course the efficiency of the reaction itself.


But CO2 isn’t harmful…. It’s actually essential for life on Earth.

“…harmful carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere… — good grief.
When I read it I assumed this was written by another one of those “science communicators.” But in this case the author calls herself a “Media Relations Specialist” and a “Senior Content and Media Strategist.” I have no idea what such titles mean, but +1 point for not putting the word “science” in them.


@ daveburton

I have no idea what such titles mean

Media Relations Specialist =Indoctrination Expert


Person at the university who talks to the newspapers.
Seriously, not everything has to be sinister. This is probably the same department that reports sports scores.


C’mon, surely there’s no objection to researchers doing research, and PR officers writing press releases?


@ benofhouston
Well, while my remark was mainly sarcastic – the real scary point is that almost ever it has a sinister background. The only rational for having media relation specialists, is to make sure the information is filtered and spinned. Most scientists are bubble mouths, who want be appreciated once a while for their achievements. They might tell the public to much of the stuff that’s called “Truth” – this must not be! It’s for your own protection, sheeple can’t handle “Truth” or this complicated sciency stuff, which makes your brain hurt.
Therefore there are these people, whose only job is to manipulate public opinion. There is nicer wording than propaganda and manipulation, but that’s what it boils down to.
What makes it even sadder is that a lot of these are just useful idiots / true believers who honestly think since they are on the “good” side, every lie is justified in the long run.

Playing god with CO2 is not a good idea. It works fine the way it is, sustaining all life on our little blue planet


The CO2 horsesh*t has to stop.


This sounds like Alchemy.


CO2 is not harmful. It is essential to life on Earth. We cannot live without it. Green plants not only convert CO2 and H2O to organic matter but their primary energy source is the sun. Plants are a completely green source of solar energy. What are they going to use as theri energy souce to drive their process, electricity from a fossil fuel burning plant? They may end up burning more ethanol then the ethanol that they produce.

Thomas Homer

Precisely! – As with many of the commenters above, I too discounted the article after seeing: “harmful Carbon Dioxide”.
We’ve established that Carbon Dioxide is the base of the food chain for all Carbon Based Life Forms, and so, their claim can be rewritten:
“The Base of the Food Chain is harmful”

Well it would be of no use if it takes more than what it gives. But new things to do are always worth a try.

Bruce Cobb

Next they will discover flubber.

Tom in Florida

+100, but your age is showing 🙂


Already been done.
Flubber was invented by an Absent Minded Professor in 1961.
Bonus points for naming who played the Romantic Interest.
{No Internet searches allowed}


I should add that the person who made the discovery was a fellow by the name of Fred MacMurray.
The reason we do not hear much about flubber is straightforward.
One of the most dramatic demonstrations of the potential of flubber was to allow a Model-T automobile to fly. As the Model-T was a 1920s era Ford product, this situation was intolerable to the executives running arch-rival General Motors at the time. Short-sighted as always, the GM executives spared no effort or expense to bury the new invention, never considering the potential revolutionary impact flubber could have on commercial aviation.

john harmsworth

I believe Michael Mann is made of flubber! Just try throwing the truth at him!

David Chappell

Caltech should be embarrassed that this nonsense carries their name.


Embarassed about what? Creating a catalyst good enough to perform a wrong-way chemical reaction? A selective one that doesn’t get a mismashed pile of junk like Fisher-Trops?
Sorry, but even if you disagree with their end goal, the science in this case is quite good.


It is hard to imagine a worse source of ethanol than converting atmospheric CO2. With a concentration of 400 parts per million, there really isn’t that much there to work with.
We live in a very stupid world.

Tom in Florida

Consider that they will most likely be getting more grant money, perhaps not so stupid in that regard.

Thomas Homer

joel: “With a concentration of 400 parts per million, there really isn’t that much there to work with.”
That is readily apparent once you consider the logistics of algae to fuel, there is not enough atmospheric CO2 to make it sustainable. And yet former President Obama said:
“We’re making new investments in the development of gasoline and diesel and jet fuel that’s actually made from a plant-like substance-algae…we could replace up to 17 percent of the oil we import for transportation with this fuel that we can grow right here in America.”
[We live in a very stupid world.]

Jeff Hamon

While I’m a bit skeptical of the idea, there is one ideal source of both energy and high CO2 concentrations – flue gas from fossil fuel combustion. Average temperature is about 300 F and CO2 concentration is >12%. Just something to think about..


That’s a very good point, especially the CO2 concentration. The temperature is almost certainly not high enough, but it has to be a start.

There are better uses for flue gas, a/k/a “the precious air fertilizer” (Scientific American).

Shawn Marshall

Look how many leaves God put on trees to harvest the trace gas CO2. This endothermic process cools the surface of the earth and provides fuel and building material. Just plant trees.;>)


This would be interesting if the copper foils worked like the plants: use CO2 from the atmosphere and energy from the sun to produce ethanol. After burning the ethanol, the CO2 would return to the atmosphere.

Ah no I don’t think you understand. They don’t want to burn the ethanol. They are going to export it to Titan and dump it in the handy ethanol seas and lakes there.


Ethanol != Ethane.

Rick C PE

jmc: Yup. The process would be “harmful CO2” neutral.


Why ‘fuel’? We’re talking here about a (very inefficient) way to make pure vodka from CO2 and water, with Oxygen as a by-product.

Rhoda R

Further, as a source of vodka, this process might actually have some commercial application.

Joe Ebeni

“We do our experiments virtually in computers,”. Huh?? Did I miss something in my management degree with admittedly deficient science curriculum? Did they then actually have a piece of copper, “Goldilocks” levels of oxygen, etc etc etc? One of the best courses I had was called “The Science of Science” with a concentration on history, method, and process with a good sprinkling of Richard Feynman. There was also a heavy discussion of fraud, other scientific misconduct and “follow the money” skeptical inquiry. The course turned me into a skeptic, if not cynic, on all new scientific discovery….kept watching the Feynman videos to remind me.


Science by Press Release tends to be pretty lame. That said…….
Hot copper is a strong and effective reducing agent in Organic Chemistry. This has been known since forever.
The ultimate carbon reduction is from CO2 back into some form of hydrocarbon compound. There is nothing wrong with with doing work to understand the exact nature of the processes involved at the molecular, atomic, and even sub-atomic level.
As we all know, nano-scale reactions and materials are big field, and getting bigger, there is nothing wrong with doing research in the field.
There is nothing wrong with the science, just the press release.
Remember the press release was likely written by a journalism major who wanted to make the story “relevant”, and “interesting”, so naturally “Saving The World” might come into it.


You beat me to it and you did it better than I would have done. That said, there’s a special place in hell for PR flacks. There should be a rule that the scientists involved have to be involved in the editing process.
Hey, all you scientists out there, these press release writers are making you look real stupid!


x1000. 😉


Harmful CO2? HAHAHAHA!

Peter Whale

Nature has already done it. The grape vine takes that nasty co2 and runs it into wine and brandy that is all the liquid fuel I need.Please send my research grant for me to make more observations.


The cheque is in the mail – trust me.

How much did this “breakthrough” cost the taxpayer?

Oh dear, oh dear. Seems someone at Caltech needs to take a little more water with their breakfast ethanol.


Where to get the energy? Down at those hydrothermal vents there are massive pressures and huge energy fluxes. And all that dissolved naughty CO2 hiding down there.


“… rearrange itself to become the liquid fuel ethanol.”
I see a bunch of corporate farmers about to be apoplectic.


If I assume for a moment that there is plenty of other energy to fuel this process (i.e. nuclear), this could be a replacement for turning farm land from fuel production to food. The process itself “solves” the problem of portable renewable energy ‘media’.
The fear of “peak oil” is over.

William Bradfield Handler

People are being overly negative about this. It is pretty obvious that you can investigate artificial photosynthesis as it is likely to be way more efficient than the natural one when fully understood. You then have a useful tool to remove CO2, if you want to do so, from the atmosphere. They talk just about the process, which is potentially useful, not about implementation.
I think it is fine to be highly critical of work that is politicizing poor science on global warming, but a bit low to tar with the same brush a valid study that does not pretend to be anything other than what it is.
Thanks for posting the article, made for interesting reading.

Industry is running out of cheap and easy copper now. Ever been to a copper mine? Seen the mess and equipment? and the energy needed? O&G is clean & easy peasy compared to copper.


I’m hanging onto my hoarded pennies, just in case.
(Yes, copper mines are messy and nasty, but not anymore. Copper is essential to wind turbines and they are 100% CLEAN. So, copper magically has become clean courtesy of wind turbines.)

john harmsworth

Metals market specialists are predicting copper prices will double by 2030 due to electric car production increases. That doesn’t even allow for much sales increase. Keep those pennies! Going to be like silver coins were in the early 80’s.


That’ll be good for the economy of Chile. Not sure about the lithium market, however, as new battery technology develops.


The Carnot Cycle is alive and well last time I noticed. By the time you use 25% or so efficient solar panels to produce electricity and then use a process with loss to convert it into c2h4oh and then use heat engines to turn the c2h4oh into electricity again, your total system efficiency is pretty darn low. You might as well “go Drax” by the time all is said and done and let plants produce the biomass and then burn it. Still, an chemically interesting finding, but not a panacea for anything.

Ron Williams

That’s what they said about electricity when it was discovered…what possible use could it have? A curious oddity they said. Or nothing would ever come of the Wright brothers fancy flying machine for the first 5 years. Even the US Navy declined much involvement with the aeroplane until about 1910. And a million other examples exist about other such discoveries and inventions. I believe this ability to convert any type of surplus energy and converting carbon dioxide efficiently into a highly efficient high density liquid fuel ensures we will stay in a future ‘carbon’ economy for the long term future. It will be a renewable ‘carbon’ future, but will ensure we transition out of fossil fuels when their price point makes them not feasible. Plus, by the time this technology is honed and polished within maybe 15-20 years, we will stabilize CO2 levels in the atmosphere at around 560-600 ppmv, a doubling from preindustrial times. Which gives us hopefully that 1.2 C temp theoretical increase and hopefully some positive feedback warmth from increased water vapour. This should keep everybody happy that all will be well for the long term future.

Their goal is apparently to remove all that harmful CO2 so that the Earth can return to its pristine, lifeless state. Of rocks and minerals. Strange goal, one would think.
Notice that there is no claim made that any of this will lead anywhere. At best, it may become practical after electric cars have replaced all ICE vehicles. I don’t believe you can power a jet engine using ethanol. Solution? Propellers and 15 hour coast to coast flights make a return.
I’ll start buying propeller manufacturer stocks.

arthur4563 June 13, 2017 at 6:56 am
I don’t believe you can power a jet engine using ethanol.

Certainly can power jet engines with ethanol, ethanol from sugar cane has been used for power generation in Brazil with gas turbines. Gas turbines have very good multi-fuel capability, that’s one reason for using them in the M1 Abrams tank (a project I worked on many years ago).

Robert Christopher

‘… harmful carbon dioxide …’
What is the other sort like?


Fossil fuel CO2 is bad, all other is good.


Ignoring my wariness of anything published in PNAS, and not being immediately put off by the words “…maybe one day…”, I read the whole press release to the end.
I saw no hint the researchers expect the complete eventual process to be spontaneous and not require energy inputs.
An Input would be acceptable as long as the net input is negative. The more negative the better.
As for tax-payer funding, this seems a relatively low-cost investigation of some fundamental science. It is the sort of work that should be first in line when the government hands out research money.
Sure, the featured press release is just a superior bit of click-bait, but most of the reaction I see here is just cynical. Reading the comments on this thread I think the alarmists can be forgiven their sense that we’re a bunch of anti-science “deniers”.

Curious George

If I remember thermodynamics correctly (a big IF), there is a balance between CO2 and C2H5OH (ethanol) in a water solution at any time (why ethanol and not a simpler methanol? Dunno, but ethanol is more pleasant). They were able to show that in the presence of copper (with a little oxygen, shown to be essential) the ethanol could be produced at all. How much of it, and how expensively, was not investigated.

john harmsworth

I can already exchange copper for ethanol at the liquor store at a much lower price!


“The scientists’ ultimate goal is to convert harmful carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere into beneficial liquid fuel.”
Here lies Science
Antiquity-Age of Gore

Ernest Bush

As a layman I look at this and think: Well, we have $6 a gallon ethanol with included taxpayers’ supplements and now they have come up, possibly, with a process to produce it at $10 a gallon ethanol while starving all plant life on the planet. The absurdity just continues to grow.
Before retirement, I had a job that depended on a model simulation which grew in sophistication over the years. Even as I retired, this simulation required constant real-world input in order to maintain accuracy. As a result I am skeptical anytime I hear that word. Sensitivity to initial conditions will get you every time.

Peta from Cumbria, now Newark

Given an nearly infinite source of energy to run this thing, it could have merit producing biochar or possibly cellulose substitute for revitalising tired/weathered/eroded soils – such as in Chad for example.
The bio-sphere needs/uses a lot of organic carbon and current farming practices are, to put it bluntly, are strip mining it from the world’s best soils. Its is being turned into CO2, dissolving into rain and thence disappearing into the briny deep as carbonate rock. No matter how many times you recite ‘Henry’s Law, Henry’s Law or even, Henry’s Law.
A basic grasp of Entropy tells you all you need to know.
The reduced organic fraction within the soil reduces fertility, allows actual erosion (mudslides etc) and the soils retain less moisture/water. Oh no, does this mean more flooding? Like Flash Flooding. Like they get in Chad?
Water, having very high latent and specific heat contents, moderates the temperature of the soil, dirt, farmland (and hence atmosphere)= 10% of the entire surface area of this planet
So you get the double whammy. CO2 levels go up and so do average temperatures.
Wonder what causes what? Its not like soil bacteria produce CO2 or are in any way sensitive to temperature.
And then, people (even scientists, honest ones at least) put thermometers where other folks may be interested in knowing the temperature – namely where they live and where they grow food.
Same places really.
I think we all know ‘scientists’ just make up the temperature in places where they don’t have thermometers.
Me & you would do just the same- make an educated guess and you don’t get more educated than A Scientist. They are all *so* incredibly clever. Its nothing at all to do with how big their paychecks or willies are.
Mmmmm. That temp vs CO2 thing sounds familiar from somewhere……..


Well. Computer synthesized reactions. Has this been done in actuality?

Curious George

I am surprised how complex systems we can model today. A crystallic structure of copper, with some oxygen in irregular positions, plus liquid water with carbon dioxide in irregular positions – amazing!


More amazing is the idea that the computer can model a here-to-unknown outcome based on possibly known inputs. That’s very close to AI. How does the computer model the unknown?

Curious George

You can model how fast a rock would fall when dropped. It is a here-to-unknown outcome, based on known inputs. It is called science, not AI.

Odd that they don’t mention the energy input required to convert CO2 to ethanol. When ethanol is burned it releases CO2, water, and energy, so any catalyzed reaction that converts CO2 to ethanol must involve energy input at least a little larger than what is released by burning (since 100% efficiency is thermodynamically impossible). Are they talking about a more efficient solar energy collector?

Michael darby

The 64,000 dollar question is……it the ethanol produced drinkable?


You can bet if it is, it will be denatured before it ever leaves the lab.

Dennis J Feindel

This is a very good example on how relying on computer programs can be dangerous to the outcome. This is what happens to the Scientists associated with Climate Alarmists. There’s no way they have ALL the pertenate info to program properly…

This raises the question: if an otherwise benign process to remove all CO2 that fossil field burning adds to the atmosphere was invented, would the eco-chondriacs still remain opposed to its use?

J Mac

Setting the ‘harmful CO2’ genuflect aside, this appears to be a fair bit of computational materials science combined with metallurgy, physical chemistry, organic chemistry, and iterative ‘wet’ lab testing of hypothesis. Cross sectional evaluations of near surface oxygen concentrations in the copper substrates may have been achieved by Focused Ion Beam Scanning Electron Microscopy (FIB/SEM) .
That’s the ‘real’ scientific method in action!
It also appeals to my metallurgical engineers soul that Bronze age copper substrates are the core of their catalysis experiments.