Turning CO2 from air into car parts may help carbon capture pay

The realm of the carbon nanofibre (Image: Stuart Licht)

All that extra carbon dioxide clogging our atmosphere might be useful for something new. In a process described at this week’s American Chemical Society meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, the carbon from piped-in air was spun into tiny nanofibres – a raw material used to build strong composites such as those used in aircraft, fitness equipment and sports cars.

A team led by Stuart Licht, of George Washington University in Washington DC, has designed a process that actively strips carbon from the air and turns it into a product that Licht claims can be sold for much more than the cost to produce it.

Carbon nanofibres sell for about $25,000 per ton, but making a ton of them using this process would cost only about $1000, according to the team’s calculations. “We’re transforming the C02 into something useful,” says Licht. “We hope there will be significant demand.”

The technique works in an electrolytic cell, in which atmospheric carbon is dissolved into a vat of lithium carbonate, a common industrial chemical.

Nanofibres grow in threads that look like steel wool from electrodes made of steel, sprouting from tiny amounts of nickel, cobalt or copper. “These little islands provide the take-off point for the carbon nanofibres and they grow from there,” Licht says.

So far, the team’s efforts to scale up from one amp of current for growing nanofibres to 100 have revealed no unexpected snags.

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