Honors Gallery

A Catalyst to Produce Ethanol, Reduce Reliance on Fossil Fuels

Award: Impact Award

Year: 2020

Award Type: National

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)

The ongoing commercialization of biowaste recycling technology developed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) could mean cleaner air and more ethanol available for use in fuel and other products.  

Many industries and applications produce CO2 in high purity yet do not recycle it, instead releasing it into the atmosphere. Commercialization of ORNL’s technology by New Orleans -based start-up ReactWell offers these industries an inexpensive and efficient means of recycling their byproduct CO2 into ethanol. 

The technology is an electrochemical catalyst that can be applied to any industry or application with a CO2 byproduct. The ethanol produced can be used for fuel and other useful products, such as beverages and industrial or household cleaners. The process combines CO2 with water and electricity to make ethanol in a single-pot reaction at room temperature and pressure. Unlike competing processes, the ORNL catalyst uses no rare earth elements, which are expensive and difficult to acquire. Notably, the simple reaction eliminates the need to purchase or produce additional hydrogen, which could lead to significant savings for refineries.  

ORNL’s technology boasts a total energy efficiency of about 22%, translating to an electrical cost of about $1.98 to synthesize one gallon of ethanol. The costs are competitive with those required to convert corn into ethanol, even before attempts to scale up the CO2 conversion process. 

Notably, the simple reaction eliminates the need to purchase or produce additional hydrogen, which could lead to significant savings for refineries.  

The invention was developed on a small scale through ORNL’s Technology Innovation Program. The lab granted an exclusive license to ReactWell, a specialty reactor systems development company that serves the energy, chemical, oil and gas, and petrochemical industries. The company is now a CRADA partner on a Department of Energy Technology Commercialization Fund grant awarded to ORNL for this effort. 

ReactWell’s commercialization plans start with introducing this waste-to-fuel technology to niche markets and eventually scaling up to the ethanol fuel industry within the next decade. If successful, this transfer effort will be highly impactful, helping to improve energy conversion methods worldwide for cleaner, more efficient oil and gas, chemical, and bioenergy production.  

One potential application for this technology is to allow renewable energy plants to take advantage of extra electricity when available by making and storing ethanol for later use. Successful commercialization also could affect the use of renewable fuels in cars and long-distance transportation vehicles by providing an additional source of ethanol that does not rely on crops for production.  

Finally, geothermal fields operated by the Department of Defense (DoD) could use the technology to produce fuels in remote locations locally during times of war, distress, or national emergency. In fact, this licensing effort has also led to ReactWell entering into a CRADA with the DoD. 

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