Can This Carbon Nanomaterial Solve Global Warming?


Scientists have just invented a way to pull something as valuable as diamonds out of thin air, and doing so MIGHT help solve the global warming problem. Hi everyone, I’m Ian O’Neill, space producer for Discovery News, and I’m here to chat today not about black holes, asteroids or spaceships, but instead, I’m going to focus on something a little more down to Earth that could have a global impact. And that something is carbon nanofibers. Or more precisely, the PRODUCTION of carbon nanofibers. This material is commonly used in high-end electronics and could be used to greatly improve carbon composite materials that are used in applications where strong, lightweight material is a necessity, such as aircraft or spacecraft. Normally, the fabrication of this material is rather expensive, preventing it from being used in more applications — often cheaper materials, such as certain plastics, will suffice.

But now, scientists from George Washington University, have invented a solar powered, low energy system that can convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into valuable carbon nanofibers. Yes, I said carbon dioxide… from the atmosphere… I think you know where I’m going here. According to BBC News, in laboratory tests, scientists put together a bath of molten salts and dropped some electrodes into the bath. Then they passed an electrical current through the salt and let it do its thing. Through a chemical reaction, a black, sooty residue began to form around the electrodes — and that black stuff was carbon nanofibers. And it’s quite impressive — the system converts carbon dioxide into this carbon residue at a rate of 10 grams per hour. And this is just a laboratory test! Can you imagine what it could do once the system is optimized and, potentially, scaled up for industrial use? This is what its inventors are thinking: Scale it up and tap into a limitless supply of carbon dioxide. But perhaps one of their more lofty goals is to possibly help slow the global warming trend by pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide, as we all know, is a potent greenhouse gas and our burning of fossil fuels is showing few signs of abating, sadly. According to the EPA, in 2013, the US alone generated over 5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide — from power plants, industry, land use and vehicles. So, not including the CO2 that’s already in the atmosphere, there’s certainly a huge reservoir of the stuff that could be used as a resource for industrial-scale carbon nanofiber factories. But other scientists aren’t convinced that these factories can be scaled up to pull enough carbon dioxide out of the air to make a difference on the global warming impacts of the greenhouse gas. But the way I see it, at least it’s a start. Also, as the technology will be producing a limitless supply of carbon nanofibers, it could transform industrial applications for the material, driving down the price, and potentially revolutionizing certain products and technologies..