The discovery was serendipitous. “We discovered somewhat by accident that this material worked,” said Adam Rondinone, lead author of the study. “We were trying to study the first step of a proposed reaction when we realized that the catalyst was doing the entire reaction on its own.”
A catalyst is a compound added to reactive mixes to affect other responses. The team used a catalyst with a novel design of copper nanoparticles embedded in carbon spikes. Applying an electric voltage to carbon dioxide dissolved in water water set off complicated reactions in the microscopic reaction sites on the catalyst surface and yielded ethanol. The researchers report a 63 percent yield recovery.