Scientists at the US Department of Energy's (DoE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have developed a nanotechnology-based catalyst that converts carbon dioxide (CO2) directly into ethanol.

The catalyst is made of copper nanoparticles embedded in carbon nanospikes, ORNL said on Wednesday.

"We discovered somewhat by accident that this material worked," said Adam Rondinone, lead author of the study published in ChemistrySelect. "We were trying to study the first step of a proposed reaction when we realized that the catalyst was doing the entire reaction on its own," he added.

With the help of the catalyst, the solution of carbon dioxide dissolved in water turned into ethanol with a yield of 63%.

As the technique uses low-cost materials and can operate at room temperature in water, the researchers think it could be scaled up for industrial applications such as storing excess electricity from variable sources like wind and solar.

The scientists plan to refine their approach to improve the overall production rate and further study the catalyst's properties and behavior.