Ethanol, with its high energy density, likely production from renewable sources and ease of storage and transportation, is almost the ideal combustible for fuel cells wherein its chemical energy can be converted directly into electrical energy. However, commercialization of direct ethanol fuel cells has been impeded by ethanol's slow, inefficient oxidation even at the best electrocatalysts. We synthesized a ternary PtRhSnO(2)/C electrocatalyst by depositing platinum and rhodium atoms on carbon-supported tin dioxide nanoparticles that is capable of oxidizing ethanol with high efficiency and holds great promise for resolving the impediments to developing practical direct ethanol fuel cells. This electrocatalyst effectively splits the C-C bond in ethanol at room temperature in acid solutions, facilitating its oxidation at low potentials to CO(2), which has not been achieved with existing catalysts. Our experiments and density functional theory calculations indicate that the electrocatalyst's activity is due to the specific property of each of its constituents, induced by their interactions. These findings help explain the high activity of Pt-Ru for methanol oxidation and the lack of it for ethanol oxidation, and point to the way to accomplishing the C-C bond splitting in other catalytic processes.