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Agribiz: Ethanol without corn is goal for researchers
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Ethanol use is everywhere. Good, bad or indifferent, ethanol is going to be part of what we use to meet our energy needs.

With that said, our animal agriculture industries like poultry and beef cattle compete for the same corn that is used to make ethanol. It just does not make much sense to use a commodity we need to feed ourselves in order to make ethanol.

Stanford University scientists have found a new, highly efficient way to produce liquid ethanol from carbon monoxide. This promising discovery could provide an eco-friendly alternative to conventional ethanol production from corn and other crops, the scientists said. Their results were published in the April 9 advanced online edition of the journal Nature. 

“We have discovered the first metal catalyst that can produce appreciable amounts of ethanol from carbon monoxide at room temperature and pressure — a notoriously difficult electrochemical reaction,” said Matthew Kanan, an assistant professor of chemistry at Stanford and co-author of the study. 

Most ethanol today is produced at high-temperature fermentation facilities that chemically convert corn, sugarcane and other plants into liquid fuel, but growing crops for biofuels requires thousands of acres of land and vast quantities of fertilizer and water, a Stanford news release noted. In some parts of the U.S., it takes more than 800 gallons of water to grow a bushel of corn, which, in turn, yields about 3 gallons of ethanol. 

The new technique developed by Kanan and Stanford graduate student Christina Li requires no fermentation and, if scaled up, could help address many of the land and water use issues surrounding ethanol production today. 

Kanan envisions taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to produce carbon monoxide, which, in turn, would be fed to a copper catalyst to make liquid fuel. The carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere during fuel combustion would be reused to make more carbon monoxide and more fuel — a closed-loop, emissions-free process. 

“We hope our results inspire other people to work on our system or develop a new catalyst that converts carbon monoxide to fuel,” Kanan said.

The study was co-authored by Jim Ciston, a senior staff scientist with the National Center for Electron Microscopy at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The research was supported by Stanford, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.


Michael Wheeler is county extension coordinator for the UGA Cooperative Extension in Hall County. You can contact him at 770-535-8293, His column appears biweekly on Thursday’s Business page and at