A team of scientists working at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, USA discovered it when they were trying to observe a proposed reaction.
The process involving nanofabrication and catalysis science is being hailed by their peers around the world.
The discovery was a sheer accident, just like the discovery of penicillin, and may prove to be revolutionary in developing waste-to-fuel conversion technology.
The method involves a catalyst made of carbon, copper and nitrogen and applied voltage to trigger a complicated chemical reaction that essentially reverses the combustion process.
In layman’s terms, where humans have burned fuel and produced carbon dioxide, these scientists have discovered how to make fuel out of the waste product.
The lead researcher Adam Rondidone said: “We’re taking carbon dioxide, a waste product of combustion, and we’re pushing that combustion reaction backwards with very high selectivity to a useful fuel.”
The electrocatalyst has a high selectivity for ethanol when it is subject to electroreduction in water at room temperatures.
“Ethanol was a surprise – it’s extremely difficult to go straight from carbon dioxide to ethanol with a single catalyst,” he added.
Doctors Yang Song, Rui Peng, Dale Hensley, Peter Bonnesen, Liangbo Liang, Zili Wu, Harry Meyer III, Miaofang Chi, Cheng Ma, Bobby Sumpter and Adam Rondinone co-authored the study.
The scientists concluded their report saying the process has economic viability.
The findings of the study have been published in ChemistrySelect. The research paper is open to public access.