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June 8th, 2007

Ethanol production inside carbon nanotubes

Ethanol is all the rage these days. Although we have been drinking ethanol, an alcohol, for thousands of years (fermented beverages such as beer and wine may contain up to 15-25% ethanol by volume), the recent interest has been sparked by its use as a renewable fuel alternative to gasoline. Indeed, the largest single use of ethanol is as a motor fuel and fuel additive. Ethanol is produced by fermentation when certain species of yeast metabolize sugar. The process works with all biological feedstocks that contain appreciable amounts of sugar or materials that can be converted into sugar such as starch or cellulose. The primary feedstock for ethanol production in the U.S. is corn. In Brazil, the world's leading ethanol producer, it's mostly derived from sugar cane. While there is a heated controversy over the economic and ecological benefits of using biomass for producing ethanol fuel, it seems that nanotechnology's jack-of-all-trades, the carbon nanotube (CNT), might provide a solution here as well. CNTs are increasingly recognized as promising materials for catalysis, either as catalysts themselves, as catalyst additives or as catalyst supports. Researchers in China now have used CNTs loaded with rhodium (Rh) nanoparticles as reactors to convert a gas mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen into ethanol. This appears to be the first example where the activity and selectivity of a metal-catalyzed gas-phase reaction benefits significantly from proceeding inside a nanosized CNT reaction vessel.


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