One way to control climate change is not to put more carbon dioxide into the air but rather to take it out. Numerous firms and researchers are trying to develop cost effective ways of sucking carbon dioxide from our polluted air and turning it into salable products. Stuart Licht, a Professor of Chemistry at George Washington University in Washington D. C, leads researchers attempting to exploit this opportunity.
Licht begins with a solar cell that is a concentrated photovoltaic. He uses it to focus sunlight to a semiconductor panel that converts about 40% of the energy into electricity at a high voltage. An article in the September 11, 2015 issue of Science magazine goes on to state, “The electricity is shunted to electrodes in two electrochemical cells: one that splits water molecules and another that splits CO2. Meanwhile, much of the remaining energy in the sunlight is captured as heat and used to preheat the two cells to hundreds of degrees, a step that lowers the amount of electricity needed to split water and CO2 molecules by roughly 25%.”
The problem that all researchers have run into is the absence of government funding which they originally believed was possible. The question they then have to confront is how to monetize what they do; have someone else pay them to remove CO2 for example from coal plant exhaust, from the air or turn it into a product that they can sell.
Licht’s team from George Washington University had earlier solved this problem by turning the extracted CO2 to carbon nanoscale fibers. Appearing in the August 19, 2015 MIT Technology Review, the article states that assuming there would be great growth in demand Professor Licht believes “the material’s properties, especially the fact that it is so lightweight and also very strong, will spur greater and greater use as the cost comes down.”
The team is taking CO2 and cooks it in molten carbonates. Surrounding air is added with a current of electricity from steel and nickel electrodes. Carbon nanofibers begin to grow on the steel electrode. The article continues as Dr. Licht is quoted as saying, “Imagine that carbon fiber composites eventually replace steel, aluminum, and even concrete as a building material…at that point, there could be sufficient use of this that it’s actually acting as a significant repository of carbon…We have found a way to use atmosphere CO2 to produce high-yield carbon nanofibers.”
Another company that has built a demonstration machine in British Columbia, Canada, is Carbon Engineering out of Calgary. David Keith is executive chairman of the firm and is also a climate physicist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His company is partially funded by Bill Gates. They recently opened a facility at Squamish, British Columbia, that processes about a ton of CO2 per day.
An article in the October 15, 2015 issue of Nature magazine states, “The plant uses fans to push air through towers containing potassium hydroxide solution, which reacts with CO2 to form potassium carbonate; the remaining air now containing less CO2, is released. Further treatment of the solution separates out the captured CO2, regenerating the capture solution for reuse.” Carbon Engineering additionally announced a deal with the province of British Columbia to assess the feasibility of turning the CO2 into fuel to power local buses.
There are other startups including one that has as its largest investor Edgar Bronfman Jr., former chairman and CEO of Warner Music. Another startup is working with Audi. These startups are looking to sell CO2 to be pumped into greenhouses to increase crop yields. In addition, they would like to remove carbon dioxide at the behest of a U.S. energy company.
This is not to say that any of the aforementioned companies will succeed or dominate a thriving business. They are trying however to develop a technology that will obviously benefit those of us that are concerned about climate change. This is the type of entrepreneurial effort that we need to be encouraging and saluting. Let us all hope for great success for these entrepreneurs and the venture capitalists that are funding them.
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