Could ethanol someday essentially be produced out of thin air? A group of scientists has published research in Nature detailing a new method of making ethanol out of carbon monoxide gas, instead of corn or sugarcane, Reuters reports. Researchers saturated water with the gas, then zapped it with a novel device featuring two electrodes, one made of what they're calling "oxide-derived copper," to convert it into fuel. "I emphasize that these are just laboratory experiments today," lead researcher Matthew Kanan says. He expects to have a prototype device ready in two to three years.
The environmental implications are profound. Critics of ethanol say it drives up food prices and consumes loads of land and water. It can take more than 800 gallons of water to grow enough corn to make 3 gallons of ethanol, Phys.org points out. What's more, researchers envision a two-step process in which the carbon monoxide is derived from carbon dioxide in the air, providing an "economic incentive" for scrubbing carbon from the atmosphere, the MIT Technology Review reports. The new process could also work on a far smaller scale than biomass methods; the Review envisions rooftop solar panels generating fuel that's kept in water heater-sized tanks. (More on the toll ethanol takes on the environment here.)