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Scientists Accidentally Turn Air Pollution into Usable Fuel


contains ethanol in concentrations as high as 27 percent.)

Furthermore, the newly discovered process has an efficiency yield ranging from 63 to 70 percent and operates at room temperature, which means it can be switched on and off “with minimal energy penalty,” Rondinone explains. Unlike prior related waste-to-fuel technology that relied on expensive parts or auxiliary technology such as solar power, the Oak Ridge team believes this comparably simple catalyst could easily be scaled up for industrial use.

For many, the discovery of a viable, carbon-neutral waste-to-fuel technology like this couldn’t come a day too soon.

In September, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in the history of the planet—a development that could well be permanent. For context, many scientists, including Bill McKibben and his 350.org initiative, believe the “safe” level of PPM to be back at 350.

“Right now we’re at 400 ppm, and we’re adding 2 ppm of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year,” reads McKibben’s initiative. “Unless we are able to rapidly turn that around and return to below 350 ppm this century, we risk triggering tipping points and irreversible impacts that could send climate change spinning truly beyond our control.”

One of the main challenges facing the reduction of greenhouse gases is the lack of a fully renewable energy grid—a problem that could well be solved by the Oak Ridge discovery.

“A process like this would allow you to consume extra electricity when it’s available to make and store as ethanol,” Rondinone said. “This could help to balance a grid supplied by intermittent renewable sources.”

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    Kat Merck is a freelance writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. An amateur naturalist who stud... keep reading