Creating carbon nanofibres from carbon dioxide in the air

A team of chemists from the George Washington University claims to have developed a way to economically change atmospheric CO2 from a climate change problem to a valuable commodity. The team's technology is said to convert the greenhouse gas into carbon nanofibres for industrial and consumer products.

The team will present its research at the 250th National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

"We have found a way to use atmospheric CO2 to produce high-yield carbon nanofibres," Stuart Licht PhD, leader of the research team, said. "Such nanofibres are used to make strong carbon composites, such as those used in the Boeing Dreamliner, high-end sports equipment, wind turbine blades and a host of other products."

Because of its efficiency, this low-energy process can be run using a few volts of electricity, sunlight and carbon dioxide. At its root, the system uses electrolytic syntheses to make the nanofibres. CO2 is broken down in a high-temperature electrolytic bath of molten carbonates at 750°C. Atmospheric air is added to an electrolytic cell. Once there, the CO2 dissolves when subjected to heat and direct current through electrodes of nickel and steel. The carbon nanofibres build up on the steel electrode, where they can be removed.

To power the syntheses, heat and electricity are produced through a hybrid solar-energy system. The system focuses the sun's rays on a photovoltaic solar cell to generate electricity and on a second system to generate heat and thermal energy, which raises the temperature of the electrolytic cell.

Licht estimates electrical energy costs of this 'solar thermal electrochemical process' to be around $1000 per ton of carbon nanofibre product, meaning the cost of running the system is said to be hundreds of times less than the value of product output.

"We calculate that with a physical area less than 10% the size of the Sahara Desert, our process could remove enough CO2 to decrease atmospheric levels to those of the pre-industrial revolution within 10 years," he said.

Licht claims that the group has recently achieved is the ability to synthesise carbon fibres using even less energy than when the process was initially developed. "Carbon nanofibre growth can occur at less than 1V at 750°C, which for example is much less than the 3 to 5V used in the 1000°C industrial formation of aluminium," he said.

The team's biggest challenge will be to ramp up the process and gain experience to make consistently sized nanofibres. "We are scaling up quickly," he adds, "and soon should be in range of making tens of grams of nanofibres an hour."

Tom Austin-Morgan

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Here we see that innovative technology can slow and reverse global warming through focus on carbon dioxide removal. This broad CDR agenda should be the core focus of global efforts to manage climate change. I will certainly bring this remarkable work to the attention of my colleagues in the Australian Government. My focus in terms of use of large scale ocean based algae production technology is carbon mining to produce commercial commodities for road building, infrastructure, food, fuel, fertilizer and fabric, as a method to remove 20 gigatonnes of carbon from the air and sea each year, double the amount we add. The great political and economic advantage of this approach is that it means business as usual in fossil fuels can continue, since the carbon we move from the crust to the air will become the source for valuable products.

I particularly welcome the comment from Dr Licht that "We calculate that with a physical area less than 10% the size of the Sahara Desert, our process could remove enough CO2 to decrease atmospheric levels to those of the pre-industrial revolution within 10 years." If true, this refutes the common dismal claim that there are no silver bullets to solve climate change. It could rapidly be introduced in the Australian deserts, where we have the political stability, policy framework and economic skills to rapidly mobilise such a project. Our government funding focus in climate change is on least cost abatement, and this technology will blow other contenders out of the water. My own work, for example in my finalist project at the MIT Climate Colab energy-water nexus challenge, has focused on use of available areas of ocean for similar purposes.

Comment Robert , 30/08/2015

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