US scientists create carbon nanofibres from thin air, literally

20 Aug 2015

A team of scientists in the US has found a way to extract carbon dioxide from the air and use it to make carbon nanofibres, in a process that, if scaled up, could dramatically reduce levels of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Carbon nanofibres are already used for a number of applications, including electrical components and batteries. However, they are extremely expensive to manufacture.

This new development may change that.

The system operates using a concentrated solar power system, which harnesses infrared and visible light to generate the heat required to fuel the required reaction.

A cocktail is made from molten lithium carbonate and lithium oxide. The lithium oxide draws carbon dioxide from the air, forming more lithium carbonate.

A voltage applied across two electrodes immersed in the cocktail creates a reaction that produces oxygen, carbon – deposited on one of the electrodes – and lithium oxide, which can then be used to begin the process over again.

Carbon nanofibres

An image of carbon nanofibres created using Licht’s method. Image via the Licht Research Group, GWU.

Prof Stuart Licht, George Washington University, is behind the project. He says that not only could this new system dramatically reduce the cost of carbon nanofibre production, but, as it’s powered by renewable energy, could also greatly reduce the effects of climate change.

According to MIT Technology Review, Licht’s team has calculated that “given an area less than 10pc the size of the Sahara Desert, the method could remove enough carbon dioxide to make global atmospheric level return to pre-industrial levels within 10 years, even if we keep emitting the greenhouse gas at a high rate during that period”.

Of course, that still leaves the problem of what to do with all of the carbon nanofibres produced in that process.

Licht is unworried. The way he sees it, the properties of carbon nanofibre will encourage more regular use as the price comes down.

Not everyone is convinced it will be that much cheaper, though.

Speaking to the BBC, Dr Katy Armstrong, a chemical engineer at the University of Sheffield, said: “As they are capturing CO2 from the air, the process will need to deal with huge volumes of gas to collect the required amount of carbon, which could increase process costs when scaled up”.

If it could reverse climate change, though, we reckon it might just be worth the cost.

Main image via Shutterstock

Kirsty Tobin was careers editor at Silicon Republic