'Diamonds from the sky': Scientists spin wonder materials from thin air

Researchers say that through a simple procedure, atmospheric CO2 could be pulled from the air and turned into valuable materials.

Mick Tsikas/Reuters/File
The sun is seen through the steam and other emissions coming from funnels of the brown coal Loy Yang Power Station in the Latrobe Valley near Melbourne in December 2008.

Reducing the greenhouse emissions has been an international goal for years, but now scientists have a solution about the carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere: They want to turn them into nanofibers.

A group of scientists from George Washington University, led by Dr. Stuart Licht, say they have developed a technology to economically convert atmospheric CO2 directly into highly valued carbon nanofibers.

“Rather than an attempt to survive the climate change consequences of flooding, wildfires, starvation, economic disruption, human death, and species extinction, we must mitigate the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide,” Dr. Licht said in a press conference Wednesday at the 250th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society in Boston.

“We report today that we have found a viable solution to mitigate climate change,” he added.

Licht explained that through their “simple procedure” atmospheric CO2 “is directly transformed into stable, useful, compact, valuable carbon products.”

The press release published on the American Chemical Society website on Wednesday, calls the process “diamonds from the sky” and explains how through an electrochemical process, trapped carbon dioxide will be turned into carbon nanofibers.

The team, which includes postdoctoral fellow Jiawen Ren and graduate student Jessica Stuart, says through this procedure, CO2 would shift from being a global-warming problem to a feedstock for manufacturing in-demand carbon nanofibers.

“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 Licht in the statement.

MIT Technology Review points out that currently there is not much market for carbon nanofibers, and Gizmodo website explains that this is no surprise given that at the moment making carbon nanofibers “costs 30 to 100 times more” than making aluminum.

But the cost shouldn’t be an issue for Licht’s team. The process is supposed be low-energy, run by “using only a few volts of electricity, sunlight and a whole lot of carbon dioxide.”

Licht estimates electrical energy costs of this process would 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.

"We calculate that with a physical area less than 10 percent 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’s system is currently in an experimental phase. He says his biggest challenge is to gain enough experience to make consistently sized nanofibers.

“We are scaling up quickly,” he said in the press release, “and soon should be in range of making tens of grams of nanofibers an hour.”

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