Take me shopping for eggs, copper and corn starch

Good news for a world often filled with bad news has recently been generated by two major U.S. universities, both in regards to the efficacy of alternative fuels. Maybe the announcements will lend confidence that America can find a way to balance economic growth with environmental concerns. Increasing success over time will mean that (paraphrasing in part, the late Sen. Robert Kennedy) the nation will not have to accept “what is” with respect to the dominance of gasoline as a fuel, but can consider “what could be” concerning the use of alternative, cleaner, safer, environmental-better and cheaper fuels.

Stanford University professors, in a paper co-authored by Dr. Matthew Kanan, assistant professor of chemistry, announced that they have developed a copper catalyst that can efficiently convert carbon monoxide and water into ethanol. Quoting from a recent MIT Technology Review (April 2014), “while the work is still experimental, it’s significant because the group was able to synthesize ethanol and other desired products with so little energy input.” The Stanford researchers envision a “two-step process in which carbon dioxide is first converted into carbon monoxide using either existing processes or more energy-efficient ones that are currently under development. Then, the carbon monoxide would be converted to ethanol or other carbon-based compounds electrochemically. The key to the new catalyst is preparing the copper in a novel way that changes its molecular structure.”

How long will it take to get from idea to market? If the copper-based process survives further lab tests and evaluations, and if it is then converted into a prototype that is able to produce ethanol fuel, a big push to convert the prototype to real-world status from both the private sector and government would be warranted.

Stanford’s “breakthrough” — if the process becomes marketable and can generate lower-priced, environmentally-safe ethanol that is capable of fueling flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) and older, converted FFVs — will be significant, even perhaps a disruptive technology. With the proper support, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, increased use of the copper catalyst will minimize and maybe even end the food vs. fuel and land-use allocation fights, as well as help resolve GHG emissions and other pollutant issues that have sometimes frustrated the use of corn-based ethanol and muted receptivity to natural-gas-based ethanol. Technological improvements concerning production reflected in recent life-cycle analysis of corn-based ethanol and reasonable assumptions concerning the cost and environmental benefits of natural-gas-based ethanol, combined with the success of Stanford’s copper catalyst approach, could offer owners of FFVs (both converted and new vehicles) a wider variety of alternatives to secure ethanol that, clearly, will be cheaper, safer and better for the environment.

Stanford’s good news was matched by Cornell’s. Dr. Yingchao You and Dr. Hao Chen announced that they had discovered that a component of corn starch and the yolk shell structure of eggs improve the durability and performance of lithium batteries. In this context, they note that lithium-sulfur batteries are a very solid alternative to lithium-ion batteries. Stabilization problems related to its capacity can be resolved by using amylopectin, a polysaccharide (mainly good old corn starch).

Enveloping the battery’s lithium sulfur cathodes, with an encasing resembling the shell of an egg yolk (sulfur coated with an inexpensive polymer) also apparently improves the battery’s durability and performance.

Cornell has initiated a startup company to take the new and improved starch, egg-yolk shell battery to market. Maybe sometime soon, moderate and middle-income owners of electric cars that are less expensive than what is now available will be able to reduce their fear of driving long distances and feel confident about the life and efficiency of the batteries in their vehicles.

I avoided chemistry, physics and engineering in college. I knew I was not destined to become neither city planner nor designer at MIT when my first student-planned bridge went under water instead of over it. While my efforts were applauded by the Malthusians among my colleagues, they were not regarded highly by professors. Since graduation, unless supported by respected colleagues with a background in relevant sciences and engineering, I have been hesitant to suggest approval of science-driven energy innovations. I am a policy and program person. However, after review and discussions with trusted experts, I believe the Stanford and Cornell initiatives have a good chance to see the light of day, or, more appropriate, see the light in the market place. If one or both do, we will all be better off and the number of feasible alternative transportation fuels available to the consumer will grow. Hooray for copper, starch and eggs.