Licensing of ORNL Electrochemical Catalyst for Conversion of CO2 to Ethanol

Award Year 

Shown L-R: Southeast Region Coordinator Page George (NSWC Panama City), Deputy Coordinator Benjamin Henry (VA), Dale Hensley (ORNL), Eugene Cochran (ORNL), and Kevin Brand (CDC), outgoing Southeast Deputy Coordinator. (more)

2019 FLC Southeast Region Award – Excellence in Technology Transfer

Researchers at ORNL have developed a process for converting CO2 to ethanol by introducing CO2 onto a sequential catalyst comprised of carbon nanospikes and copper nanoparticles. Together these react electrochemically with the CO2 in the form of bicarbonate, producing ethanol. The process can be operated as a dispatchable load that can be matched to the intermittency of renewable sources such as wind and solar.

Although this catalyst does not require corn fermentation, that does not mean that the catalyst would supplant corn; in fact, the highest commercial interest so far has been from currently operating fuel ethanol companies that see this technology as adding value to existing fermenter operations. The reason for this is that fermentation is a biological process, and 1/3 of the carbon atoms in sugar are oxidized to CO2 and lost to the atmosphere. According to industrial sources the average fuel ethanol fermentation plant produces 100 million gallons per year of ethanol but produces even more CO2. If that CO2 could be captured and converted back to ethanol, then the ethanol could be purified and distributed through the existing facility infrastructure. All that is needed is the electrolyzer capability and wind power, which is abundant throughout the Midwest.

In comparison to corn ethanol, the ORNL CO2 catalyst is completely carbon neutral and can synthesize ethanol from any CO2 source (purification of the CO2 may be necessary) using only electricity and minimal water as a hydrogen source. The catalyst operates at room temperature and pressure, thereby lowering the cost of standby and making it amenable to operation by variable renewable electricity sources such as wind power.

Through ORNL’s innovative Technology Investment Program (TIP), the invention was matured in a laboratory-scale and small pilot-scale. Via this demonstration and via the high level of interest in said catalysts, several license applications for this technology were solicited. After careful considerations of the various applications from companies located worldwide, Oak Ridge National Laboratory exclusively licensed the technology by territories to the leading candidates within the United States, ReactWell, LLC (ReactWell), was identified as an excellent candidate for advancing the technology. ReactWell is an innovative start-up venture focused on providing advanced technology services and products for organizations in the energy, chemical, O&G, and petrochemical industry doing business both inside and outside of the United States. ReactWell has licensed this novel waste-to-fuel technology to improve energy conversion methods for cleaner, more efficient oil and gas, chemical and bioenergy production, which aligns very closely to their business model. “The ORNL process is complementary to other refining techniques by providing a means to recycle carbon dioxide that would otherwise be released,” states ORNL’s Dr. Adam Rondinone, co-inventor of the carbon dioxide-to-ethanol catalyst.