CO2 Wizardry or Hype?

The headlines read:

“Scientists accidentally discover a method to turn carbon dioxide Into ethanol.”


“CO2 may help renewables industry.”

While stories in the media read:

“The [CO2 to Ethanol] process could be used to store excess electricity generated [by] wind and solar. … It could help balance a grid supplied by intermittent renewable sources.”

And, more dramatically:

“This low-cost electrochemical reaction may come to the rescue of the earth’s climate.”

Photo from ORNL, catalyst of copper nanoparticles embedded in carbon nanospikes.
Photo from ORNL, catalyst of copper nanoparticles embedded in carbon nanospikes.

While most people would applaud being able to dispose of unwanted CO2, this wizardry, from DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, may just be hype.

First, there is the scientific fact that the process requires more energy to produce ethanol from CO2, than is in the ethanol that’s produced. The energy input is greater than the energy output. (This is the same basic problem with fusion.)

We have not yet discovered perpetual motion. Electricity is required to produce ethanol from CO2, and the process only has a yield of 63%.

Unless the source of electricity doesn’t use fossil fuels or the electricity would otherwise be wasted, the process would ultimately add CO2 to the atmosphere. (I.e., generating electricity for the process produces more CO2 than would be absorbed by the ethanol.)

For example, if wind turbines generate electricity that cannot be used on the grid, this electricity could be used to produce ethanol and remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

But this is a very limited case, since selling the electricity to the grid has a greater economic value than using the electricity to produce ethanol. Excess electricity from wind energy usually only happens at night when the grid is lightly loaded and represents a small fraction of the electricity produced by wind turbines.

Rephrasing the issue:

Why build wind turbines and solar farms to generate electricity to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, when they could, theoretically, be used to displace the electricity generated by fossil fuel power plants and prevent the CO2 emissions in the first place?

Amazingly, if the foregoing isn’t sufficient to demonstrate that the media headlines are hype, the scientific paper describing the process contained the following conclusion:

“The process probably precludes economic viability for this catalyst.” And,

“The entire reaction mechanism has not yet been elucidated.”

This discovery does nothing to change the fact that wind and solar are unreliable, or intermittent. Neither wind nor solar generate the electricity required for the reaction when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine: I.e., no electricity, no ethanol.


The media created the impression that a process was accidentally discovered that could remove CO2 from the atmosphere and “come to the rescue of the earth’s climate” while also mitigating the intermittent problems associated with wind and solar.

Both propositions are false.

It’s merely media hype.


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Nothing to Fear, Chapter 6, Wind Energy, explains why wind energy is expensive and unreliable.

Nothing to Fear is available from Amazon and some independent book sellers.

Link to Amazon:

Book Cover, Nothing to Fear
Book Cover, Nothing to Fear

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