Turning Environmental Trash Into Treasure

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Turning Environmental Trash Into Treasure

The ability to turn a waste product into something useful will only transform industries if that substance exists in large quantities and can be captured and processed economically. In the case of carbon dioxide, which has recently been viewed as a pollutant, massive quantities are certainly available, particularly from the burning of fossil fuels.

Now, cutting-edge research is demonstrating that CO2 can become a valuable industrial-scale raw material. However, the challenge has been to find a reliable way to capture and store it.

By solving this two-tiered recovery and transformation puzzle, scientists are truly turning trash into treasure.

To understand the implications, let's start by considering some of the recent breakthroughs related to the carbon capture challenge.

First, researchers from the University of Adelaide in Australia have developed a new nanomaterial that offers the potential to reduce CO2 emissions from coal-fired power stations by capturing the gas, which could then be available for other uses.1 This technology could prove to be significant, since a large proportion of carbon dioxide emissions come from coal-fired power stations throughout the world.

The nanomaterial is a new absorbent material, which researchers refer to a metal-organic framework. This material is especially proficient at separating CO2 from nitrogen, which is the other significant output generated by coal-fired power stations. As the team leader puts it, the nanomaterial "is like a sponge but at a nanoscale. The material has small pores that gas molecules can fit into. A CO2 molecule fits, but a nitrogen molecule is slightly too big. That's how we separate them."

Compared to other methods for separating CO2 from nitrogen, this material appears more energy efficient. Regenerating the CO2 for use is accomplished by simply applying small changes in temperature or pressure. One option being considered is dispersion of the nanomaterial in "powder form" within a membrane, which could be practical for use by industry.

Meanwhile, researchers at MIT have also developed a new method for "scrubbing" CO2 from the emissions of fossil-fuel power plants. Their method, a new electrochemical system, was described in a recent paper by doctoral student Michael Stern, chemical engineering professor T. Alan Hatton, and two others, published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science...

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