The technology actually incorporates copper and carbon thinly arranged into nanospikes on a silicon surface. These spikes taper down to a point only a few atoms thick. When a electric current is applied the electric field is concentrated right on the tip of these nanospikes. These microspikes allow scientist to generate a much higher electric field then would be possible from a normal flat catalyst. This means that not only does this process not require rare-earth minerals, but it is also highly efficient, it can work at room temperature, and it can be turned on and off at will quickly.
One of the major problems that has faced Green Energy is that things like wind turbines and solar panels don't always produce a constant flow of electricity. In Germany for example, when the sky suddenly clears, it can cause surges in the grid of up to 30000 Megawatts which overloads the grids in neighboring countries, like Poland. It also forces German citizens to pay foreign nations like France and the Czech Republic to take their surplus energy. Yet that is only during warmer months, during the winter time Germany's solar panels produce only 3% of their capacity, to no energy at all, especially when snow falls and covers the panels. This forces Germany to buy France's and the Czech Republic`s energy every winter and build dozens of new coal powered power plants.
The story is the same with Denmark who depends on Swedish Nuclear energy and Norway's excess hydroelectric power. This has led the two countries to pay the highest prices for electricity in the developed world. So high in fact that Philipp Rösler, Germany’s minister of economics and technology, called the spiraling solar costs a major “threat to the economy.” This is because only coal, nuclear, and hydraulic power plants are able to turn on and off quick enough to react to the fluctuations in the power grid from solar and wind power generators. Yet this new technology, once refined, could lead to a better, cleaner and cheaper alternative for some of these types of problems. Other problems like solar and wind's need for rare earth mineral mining which has caused lakes of sulfuric acid, slave trades, organized crime, and the poisoning of entire villages over in Asia will still need to be addressed though.
Yet this is a great first step in the direction of finding cleaner fuels. "A process like this would allow you to consume extra electricity when it's available to make and store as ethanol," said Adam Rondinone, one of the researchers responsible for the discovery. "This could help to balance a grid supplied by intermittent renewable sources." Right now this catalyst is only capable of producing a yield of around 63%-65% on average, with a max yield of 70%. Although that is far better than the single digit yields of the previous methods of turning CO2 to ethanol, the system will still need to be refined and made more efficient before it's put to its intended purpose. Yet this still stands as an important breakthrough as only a few months ago nobody even thought it was possible to do this with these kind of results.