‘Diamonds from the sky’ approach turns CO2 into carbon nanofibers

Researchers remove a greenhouse gas from air while generating carbon nanofibers Researchers remove a greenhouse gas from air while generating carbon nanofibers like these. Photo courtesy of Stuart Licht, Ph.D.jpg

A research team of chemists at George Washington University has developed a technology that can economically convert atmospheric CO2 directly into highly valued carbon nanofibers for industrial and consumer products — converting an anthropogenic greenhouse gas from a climate change problem to a valuable commodity, they say.

The team presented their research on August 19 at the 250th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

“Such nanofibers are used to make strong carbon composites, such as those used in the Boeing Dreamliner, as well as in high-end sports equipment, wind turbine blades and a host of other products,” said Stuart Licht, Ph.D., team leader.

Previously, the researchers had made fertilizer and cement without emitting CO2, which they reported. Now, the team, which includes postdoctoral fellow Jiawen Ren, Ph.D., and graduate student Jessica Stuart, says their research could shift CO2 from a global-warming problem to a feed stock for the manufacture of in-demand carbon nanofibers.

Licht calls his approach “diamonds from the sky.” That refers to carbon being the material that diamonds are made of, and also hints at the high value of the products, such as carbon nanofibers.

A low-energy, high-efficiency process

The researchers claim this low-energy process can be run efficiently, using only a few volts of electricity, sunlight, and a whole lot of carbon dioxide. The system uses electrolytic syntheses to make the nanofibers. Here’s how:

  1. To power the syntheses, heat and electricity are produced through a hybrid and extremely efficient concentrating 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 an electrolytic cell.
  2. CO2 is broken down in a high-temperature electrolytic bath of molten carbonates at 1,380 degrees F (750 degrees C).
  3. Atmospheric air is added to an electrolytic cell.
  4. The CO2 dissolves when subjected to the heat and direct current through electrodes of nickel and steel.
  5. The carbon nanofibers build up on the steel electrode, where they can be removed.

Licht estimates electrical energy costs of this “solar thermal electrochemical process” to be around $1,000 per ton of carbon nanofiber product. That means the cost of running the system is hundreds of times less than the value of product output, he says.

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