The discovery will significantly reduce the use of rare, expensive metals in factories, said the authors.
Professor Sun Jian and colleagues at the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics, at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Liaoning, shot a copper target with a jet of hot, electrically charged argon gas.
The fast-moving ionised particles blasted copper atoms off the target. The atoms cooled down and condensed on the surface of a collecting device, producing a thin layer of sand.
Each grain of the sand had a diameter of only a few nanometres, or a thousandth of the size of a bacterium.
The researchers put the material in a reaction chamber and used it as a catalyst to turn coal to alcohol, a sophisticated and difficult chemical process that only precious metals can handle efficiently.
“The copper nano particles achieved catalytic performance extremely similar to that of gold or silver,”