And For My Next Trick, I’ll Be Pulling Carbon Nanofibers Out Of Thin Air!

Scientists at the George Washington University have managed to figure out a process in which they can literally grow carbon nanofibers out of thin air, using solar power.

Not only that, they do it using carbon dioxide — you know, that gas that contributes heavily to climate change? Using two electrodes, they pump power into a mixture of molten salt; lithium carbonate and lithium oxide. Then, carbon dioxide from the air reacts with the lithium oxide, producing carbon nanofibers — with more lithium carbonate and oxygen as byproducts.

The carbon nanofibers can then be used for a wide range of products or further processes. But beyond getting a useful material out of it, getting rid of carbon dioxide, if done on a large scale, could be beneficial for climate change. Unfortunately, they haven’t figured out how to do that just yet…

Speaking of carbon dioxide, did you know Copenhagen is building a massive waste-to-energy power plant which will also include a rock climbing wall and a ski slope on its exterior? What if you could combine these processes, and instead of the plant generating carbon dioxide, it manufactured carbon nanofibers? Until then, architects are planning on having the plant expel carbon dioxide smoke rings — each representing 1 ton of CO2. You know, just as a nice visual reminder of how much pollution the power plant makes…

77 thoughts on “And For My Next Trick, I’ll Be Pulling Carbon Nanofibers Out Of Thin Air!

  1. Though it sounds very interesting and promising… with an efficiency described as “an area 10 percent of the size of the Sahara desert dedicated to this chemical reaction would be enough to mitigate climate change”… (thats 1 000 0000 km² only to mitigate the climate change) it’s not practicable

      1. Also humans could reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere by reducing plastic consumption, more expensive production methods, recycling and better organisation. But they don’t ;)

        The technology solving the CO2 problem has to be very efficient, cheap and environmental friendly. If just one of those points is missing, it’s doomed.

          1. [BNBN]
            Al Gore for one.
            He has set himself up to be a broker of carbon credits, with a nice percentage of each transaction for profit.
            He just needs to get more countries and corporations to buy into the idea.

          2. Great to have a climatologist on the site, and one of the very few who disagree with anthropogenic global warming.

            I look forward to hearing more of your fascinating views.

          3. Oh, so there’s a problem with somebody making a buck? Or is it just a problem for members of a certain US political party? Besides, if a person/company/national economy can’t make money on pollution controls, it just isn’t trying hard enough.

            BTW, I was trained as a meteorologist, and took the standard number of climatology classes my degree required. For what it is worth, I believe that by the time anything really significant happens with the climate (man-made or otherwise) nothing short of an act of God or a geological epoch will undo it.

          4. Don’t even need to argue with this. Just go look up the consensus of the vast majority of the world’s scientists.

            Global warming is like evolution. The argument’s over. It’s just a few really unintelligent Americans who insist there’s any controversy. Well, the unintelligent and the liars. Fortunately the tendency of society is to advance, so we’re not likely to end up in the new Dark Age they’d drag us into.

          1. HAHAHAHAH! If we contaminate 1 000 000m² or use it for nanofiber production, whats better ?
            Nuclear (fission) power plants do not work in our capitalism and not in the communism. We can see this on chernobyl and fukishima. And here I ignore the waste that is produced.

          2. Nobody’s died as a direct result of Fukushima yet, but there’s still a few million years to go. Even Friends Of The Earth have stopped opposing nuclear power, but that’s only because things are so desperate with CO2.

            The people working on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site are having to consider ways of making safety signs taking into account people of the future speaking completely different languages. The Long Now clock is a potato clock compared to the problems of keeping nuclear waste from killing unknowable amounts of people over the next few hundred thousand / million years. Or whatever we have then instead of people. Over any sort of scale nuclear power is almost infinitely wasteful.

          3. Agreed. With current designs that utilize a high percentage of the fuel put into them, we can reduce both Carbon emissions and rid the world of high energy nuclear materials. Alas fear keeps people from accepting the possibility and the potential for the new plants to be much more fiscally manageable than before keeps them from being considered as an alternative.

            Gen IV systems and Molten Salt coolant style reactors are inherently safe and can be scaled to needed sizes.

          4. It needs to be tested more and developed more, but LFTR (Liquid(?) Fluorine Thorium Reactors) were once considered to be possible, and would consume nuclear waste (i.e. thorium), and byproducts could not be weaponized.

      2. The problem is plants are largely not carbon-sequestering. They will eventually die, releasing that CO2 back into the air through decomposition. Being able to store and compress these carbon nano-fibers will be much more effective at removing carbon from the atmosphere en masse.

          1. I would posit that we need to have our carbon sequester/release cycle neutral. Release all you want, but you’d better plant some trees to absorb it all again. Rinse and repeat.

          2. Well, clean air is quite valuable. And burying plants underground is how fossil fuels got there.

            Come the day I wouldn’t be surprised if the same fuckers who pollute it would move into the business of selling clean air in bottles.

            Charging companies for damaging and using up a resource that belongs to everybody fits in with capitalism. That’s what we should do. It would also help if people just bought less crap. And didn’t have to drive to some out-of-town gigastore to buy it.

            Ironically this is where the obsolete skill of actually repairing things would come in handy.

        1. We can compress and desiccate the dead plants, then bury into the ground the mass we thus get. In dry anaerobic conditions it won’t get back into circulation soon. In a way, we might “un-mine” coal, fill empty coal mine shafts with charcoal, then seal them up.

        2. Wait. So if you sequester it, what happens if the number of plants on the planet suddenly increase? Wouldn’t they need it? I think the only real answer is to make sure that the number of plants growing on the planet does not decrease. I.E. no more burning rainforests or turning everything into manicured lawns and parking lots.

        3. You are right! *Life* flourished at the times when fossil fuels where created. And you are right that life will go on even if we put all that CO2 back to atmosphere. But how much will conditions on earth change and will it still be habitable for humans?

          Question isn’t about life, its about change and rate of change. Can current civilization cope with the rapid change? Sea level rise, lose of fertile coast line, cities at coast line and their infrastructure, changes in weather patterns like drought and floods.

          Mankind will survive these changes. But argument is current civilization may not and that will cause famine and wars.

    1. Let’s just turn 1 000 000 km² of the Sahara into a food forest. It would probably cost about the same, temporarily sequester co², and be delicious all at the same time. Another benefit would be that it would require no mining or dangerous chemical processes.

  2. Producing carbon nanofibers might be worthwhile. Using solar power to reduce CO2 in the air is not. If you have enough solar power to pull CO2 out of the air, it would be more efficient to use that power to replace fossil fuel plants – thus preventing the CO2 from getting into the air in the first place.

      1. Presumably direct solar -> energy transition is more efficient than building scrubbers. So you do one first, then the other when you can’t make any more progress on the first one.

        1. Actually that’s arguable, I think building scrubbers and carbon capture can be quite efficient. It needs big power plants to be worth the while. It’s effectively just reducing the efficiency of a plant per unit of fuel, but increasing it per unit of CO2 etc released.

          Obviously it’s a lot easier to capture carbon from a power plant’s chimney than from the air in general. Some of the plans involve burying CO2 as a gas, I think that’s asking for trouble, the Earth does nothing if not crack occasionally. Absorbing it into something would be best. And turning plants into charcoal would be a simple way.

    1. You need to calm down, joey.
      The CO2 was in the air, and it was a deadly atmoshpere.
      For a long period of time, there was only a few proto-algea in the ocean.
      They developped to the point where they changed the composition of the atmosphere,
      and new forms of life could develop.
      Life flourished BECAUSE of the oxygen rich atmosphere. Otherwise, only a few extremophiles would have existed.

      So, NO, a carbon filled atmosphere is not suitable for “life on earth”. Most if not all animals need oxygen, and many life forms rely on it.

      So, please calm down, have a sip of cold water, and stop burning plastic in your yard to restore things “as they were” :)

    1. Yeah but a small amount of damage localised to mines is preferable to fucking up the whole atmosphere. And they can always tidy it back up after, mines are sometimes turned into nature preserves. As long as they take care of any dangerous pollutants as they’re doing the mining.

  3. Let’s also not forget about the environmental damage created to mine and convert lithium into suitable reactants for this project… Let’s measure the total process, not cherry pick the parts you want to see happen.

    1. Eh its actually pretty benign here in the states, they have huge evaporation ponds but it’s not even close to what is used in the oil field.

      I used to be a lithium hater, then I really dove into the subject and short term it looks much better than oil, its a stop gap to all hydrogen. Lithium carbonate is needed as a precursor to get to lithium metal for todays lipo battery.

      1. I think hydrogen is a fad that’s now forgotten. It’s never going to be practical anyway, there’s no natural source of it. Almost all the commercial supply is made by burning natural gas with steam. The only renewable way seems to be electrolysis, a massive and inefficient waste of valuable electricity.

        I think hydrogen might well have been greenwash for fossil fuel companies to pretend there was an answer round the corner, and it was OK to just carry on consuming petrol as usual. Same thing as BP putting solar panels on the rooves of their petrol stations, as if the station itself were the problem.

        I think the future is batteries. But more importantly, we could reduce the size of cars by so much. Cars are only so big due to history. They needed to be big in the beginning to support the weight of the engine, and all the heavy steel the structure was made of. We could build much more lightweight people-movers, carrying 1 person at a time.

        Mixing them in with ordinary heavy-metal traffic might be a safety problem, but if the roads were full of lightweight cars, things would be much safer. A problem of inertia. Same inertia that makes people buy the things they’re used to seeing. There’s so much we could do to improve cars even now, but the great entrenched mass of the way things are makes it almost impossible.

        Maybe a massive subsidy, though who could afford it? To make people buy little man-movers as a second car, that costs almost nothing to run, and less parking problems. They might end up leaving the big car at home, and eventually not bother replacing it.

        1. No hydrogen is not forgotten, all it needs are new materials that catalyze the reactions without platinum.

          On the production side Nickel Iron plates have shown alot of promise for catalyzing electrolysis. When it reaches one dollar a kilogram it will defeat oil for transportation.

          By your same logic batteries are a fad that have been forgotten, but no they are also a field in which large amounts of research is focused.

          You are wrong on the size of cars as well. A 2kWh per kg battery, combined with a small H2 fuel cell, stuffed into an entirely carbon fiber, kevlar composite vehicle will weigh 1/3 what todays steel vehicles do and be just as strong. It’s an economy of scale, you always take 4 people in the same vehicle over sending 4 in seperate vehicles.

          Do you have any idea what you are talking about?

          1. The number of people per car is a grandfathered design. 5 people actually fit in most mid sized sedans. It probably has to do with the average size of a family.

            Batteries aren’t going anywhere fast. The latest and greatest is always an unstable electrolyte. Lithium was the biggest advance in battery technology and its been sitting king for quite some time. The biggest problem with batteries will always be the power to weight ratio. Gasoline puts out immense power to weight. But it’s a one time chemical reaction. People want rechargeable batteries because it makes is feel like we are getting a better value.

            Tl;dr: cars were designed for the average sized family and batteries will never replace instant fuels.

    2. Of course. I don’t think this is gonna be a practical way to reduce pollution on any sort of scale. Plants are so much easier. Self-replicating, self-tending, self-everything, and they’re cheap too.

        1. Sarcasm alert, dude. Lithium’s therapeutic index is pretty slim – the effective dose and the toxic dose aren’t all that far apart, and can change in an individual over fairly short timeframes. Widespread contamination with this stuff would be… bad.

  4. Somebody read and decided to juxtapose two posts together lol. In the original article the creator has no intention of commercialization and other scientist are skeptical on its uses other than creating nanotubes. Taken as a nanotube creating facility powered completely by solar and wind I imagine the CO2 reduction might make up for the materials mining footprint but I doubt it would render a negative footprint.

    Problem with this carbon emissions trade BS is that one country will have a ton of these plants and boat a lower footprint and import the raw materials from Africa pushing their footprint higher. Its all just a shell game. We need truly transformational energy production to actually reduce GLOBAL emissions. We all share the same air Bro.

    1. keep in mind, our global average temperature between now and the cretaceous hothouse was only 10 degrees celsius, which is less than five percent of our average temp, so less than 5 percent could have a huge effect over all. and sure, water vapor might be a huge part, but as we reduce co2, water vapor will condense, removing(reducing?) itself from the cycle in a cleansing rain, and i’m betting that cascade effect will be comparable to the amount of co2 we remove from the system.

  5. There’a a bit of a misconception in this write up and the referenced article.

    “Then, carbon dioxide from the air reacts with the lithium oxide, producing carbon nanofibers — with more lithium carbonate and oxygen as byproducts.”

    This is slightly wrong, as the reaction materials are not consumed during the process. The lithium oxide binds with the CO2. When the current strips out the carbon and oxygen, it returns to being lithium oxide and the process repeats. See below reference. Also note that some are concerned about using lithium compounds, however i believe calcium oxide (commonly available as QuickLime), exibits the same affinity for CO2 and potentially could be used instead. Calcium oxide is already used for carbon sequestration, however typically the material is heated to remove the CO2 to enable reuse.

    “The process requires molten lithium carbonate, with another compound, lithium oxide, dissolved in it. The lithium oxide combines with carbon dioxide in the air, forming more lithium carbonate. When voltage is applied across two electrodes immersed in the molten carbonate, the resulting reaction produces oxygen, carbon—which deposits on one of the electrodes—and lithium oxide, which can be used to capture more carbon dioxide and start the process again.”

    1. Does seem overwhelmingly likely that the energy this consumes requires more carbon releasing into the atmosphere than it recovers. At least while fossil-fuel power plants are still operating. And by the time we get rid of those, this won’t be needed. Well, unless we’re really fucked.

    1. Are you a troll?
      If i follow your “reasoning”, burning fossil fuels means keeping plants alive, and ‘if we were to stop releasing CO2 that had been removed from the atmosphere, ALL plant life on earth would die out’. So, if i hear you out, unless men burn fuel, plants dies out. So you mean that prior to the petrol era, plants had disapeared?
      Your own sentence just disproved your ENTIRE speech. If what you say was true, no plants would have survived. They however did. The atmosphere became breathable 500 million years ago, and it worked just fine.

      About your “It was just tropical everywhere”, it is juste simply plain wrong. There have been glaciation era, as there have been desertic stages.

      Again, the earth was not “healthy, very healthy”, it was deadly for a long time.
      The first land plants apeared aroung -450 million years. And keep in mind that a lot of the earth carbon was/is dissolved in the ocean.

      However, i think i’m wasting time here. There probably is a reason so few people answers your posts…

      And if you are sincere about what you say, go read a bit about the evolution of life to see how vastly the history of earth differs from your claims. Earth is a complex system, so is life. It evolved to adapt to precise conditions. Some life forms will survive to nearly anything (tardigrads, for instance), whereas many lifeforms are able to survive because they adapted efficiently to specific conditions. Change those, and they goes extinct.

      By the way, this period is known to have the fastest extinction rate of earth’s history, even faster than any other mass extinctions that occured, including a brutal one such as the extinction of dinosours.

      Perhaps we should stop and think about why this is happening, and try to find ways to preserve the environement, and the biodiversity of earth. This planet contains a vast panel of genetic information that should be preserved.

    1. This will happen when the Earth has everyone in O2 bubbles and suits, cause of the plasticization of the photo plankton ocean surface that makes O2 here. Someday there will be a global red tide build in a week.
      The Mars camps and plants will be used like what the Brits did to their rejects when they sent them downunder. Love it or leave it.

  6. Why take the CO2 from the air AFTER it has been released? Even if you could do this efficiently enough to turn a profit it wouldn’t be profitable for long. (even if it saves the world you have to pay for it somehow) The thing is this technology would make CO2 a valuable item. (Yes, that’s a good thing) So why would all the power plants and factories keep dumping it into the atmosphere for free? They would get their own CO2 to carbon fiber converters and apply it directly to their smokestack output. For the world.. that outcome is just fine. The CO2 is no longer getting released. For the original inventor… financial ruin. Surely with their much more concentrated supply of input material the power plants and factories are going to outproduce the air-filterers.

    So why not just focus on making carbon fiber or carbon-whatever else directly from smokestack exhaust in the first place rather than filtering ambient air?

    10% the size of the Sahara? Really!?!

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