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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0 Replies to “CO2 Wizardry or Hype?”

  1. Another uncertainty about this new method is that the conversion occurs on an almost micro scale. A major question is whether it could be scaled up to the enormous volumes of CO2 and ethanol that would be involved with commercial energy. What can be done in the lab often becomes difficult on an engineering scale.

    • Thanks.
      I think you are correct in that the Green movement has lost touch with reality and treat climate change as a religion that can’t be questioned.

  2. Don,
    Thanks for debunking this one. It’s the usual uninformed media stuff. I agree with your comment about climate change being a religion.

  3. Thanks for another great article. I can’t wait for some intelligent work process to be implemented by the government which requires those requesting a grant to actually have a potential scientific accomplishment that can be verified by the laws of thermodynamics. Unfortunately many of the funded projects seem to rely on “perpetual motion” . Clearly the staff in the various agencies appear to not have a grasp of the laws of physics and thermodynamics. Their goal is to get the $$ out regardless of technical viability. I have spoken with several DOE employees and find them lacking the necessary skills to handle our tax dollars. Also in many cases they choose to respond to requests for progress reports.
    Let’s hope for a better use of our resources in the next administration. .

  4. Donn, often I don’t like what you write because it looks biased or lacking of the details to understand where the truth is, however I die in order to allow you to keep writing it. We need always to see the 2 sides of the coin. Thanks

    • Sandro: Thanks for your comment. I guarantee that everything I write is factually correct, but don’t always have space to detail the backup facts supporting my articles. I find it’s important to keep the articles short, so that people will read them.

  5. Pingback: Weekly Climate and Energy News Roundup #248 | Watts Up With That?

  6. It’s good to recall that photosynthesis in plants uses the energy red photons and splits water; it tacks the hydrogens on CO2 to make carbohydrates and releases the O2 into our air.

    Animals do the reverse and strip hydrogens off of carbohysrates and tacks these on oxygen to make water and dumps the CO2 skeletons into the air.

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