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In the 1990s a graduate student named Lin Chao at Princeton University decided to bubble carbon dioxide into an electrochemical cell. Using cathodes made from the element palladium and a catalyst known as pyridinium—a garden variety organic chemical that is a by-product of oil refining—he discovered that applying an electric current would assemble methanol from the CO2. He published his findings in 1994—and no one cared.

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