Diamonds From The Sky

Scientists, as well as government officials, have dreamed for long to finding a technology able to shift carbon dioxide (CO2) from a greenhouse gas that leads to climate change to a valuable commodity. Now, a team of chemists has developed a technology to convert excess CO2 from the atmosphere directly into carbon nanofibers for industrial and consumer products.

This research on the brand-new technology to capture and utilize atmospheric CO2 will be presented be the team at the 250th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

According to Stuart Licht, Ph.D., the lead scientist of the research team at George Washington University, his team has found a way to use excess CO2 from the atmosphere and to efficiently produce high-yield carbon nanofibers. These nanofibers can be used in building high-end sports equipment, strong carbon composites, like those used in the Boeing Dreamliner, as well as wind turbine blades and many other products.

The researchers had reported previously that they designed a technology to make cement and fertilizer without emitting CO2. Now, their research team has gone a step further and reported that their new technology could shift CO2 from being a climate change problem to a resource for manufacturing in-demand carbon nanofibers. The team of scientists includes graduate student Jessica Stuart and postdoctoral Jiawen Ren, Ph.D.

Licht, the lead of the team, calls this innovative approach "diamonds from the sky," since diamonds are made of carbon and the carbon nanofibers can be considered as valuable as diamonds.

This low-energy process is very efficient and it can be run using sunlight, only a few volts of electricity, and carbon dioxide. The system is producing nanofibers by using electrolytic syntheses. In a high-temperature bath of molten carbonates at 1,380 degrees F (750 degrees C), CO2 is broken down. To an electrolytic cell is added atmospheric air. When subjected to the heat and the direct current charge through electrodes of steel and nickel, the CO2 dissolves. The carbon nanofibers then build upon the steel electrode, from where they can be removed, according to Licht.

The electricity, heat and synthesis are producing power through a very efficient hybrid system concentrating solar energy. The sun's rays are focused by the system on a photovoltaic solar cell in order  to generate electricity. On a secondary system, the sunlight is focused to generate heat and thermal energy, in order to raise the temperature of the electrolytic cell.

According to Licht's estimates, in this "solar thermal electrochemical process" the solar energy costs are around $1,000 per ton of carbon nanofiber product. The value of the product output is hundreds of times more than the cost of running the system. Licht envisions that their process will remove enough CO2 within 10 years to decrease atmospheric levels to those of the pre-industrial revolution.

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