Turning CO2 into Carbon Fibers: Restoring the Damaged Atmosphere

A recent article from technologyreview.com gives us a glimpse at a newly discovered chemical process that sucks CO2 from the atmosphere and turns it into carbon fibers and oxygen.

We as a human race have been damaging the atmosphere with carbon emissions for over a century. The surge of the industrial era and subsequent increase of fossil fuel use has brought these emissions to staggering levels.

This graph shows the dramatic rise of carbon emissions since the industrial era began. Source: https://jahschem.wikispaces.com/absorption+of+radiation
This graph shows the dramatic rise of carbon emissions since the industrial era began. Source: https://jahschem.wikispaces.com/absorption+of+radiation

While this sequestering technology may not be able to stop people from using gasoline or other fossil fuels, it can produce nanofibers made of carbon.

So what?

As it turns out, the production of these fibers has multiple advantages, some of which benefit the atmosphere:

  1. Carbon fibers are strong. They’re used for aerospace and industrial construction projects as well as automobile manufacturing. They’re even stronger when interwoven on a microscopic (nano) scale. This new process can yield nano-scale fibers.
  2. Carbon fibers are lightweight. Whether you’re trying to get a rocket into space or take advantage of increased fuel efficiency on the highway, carbon fibers can lighten your load without compromising strength.
  3. Carbon fibers are conductive. On a nano scale, even more so.
A microscope photo of carbon nanofibers sequestered by this new process. Source: technologyreview.com
A microscope photo of carbon nanofibers sequestered by this new process. Source: technologyreview.com

Manufacturing potential aside, it’s important to note that by existing in nanofibers, the sequestered carbon can no longer exist in the air. It cannot damage our ozone layer. It cannot further encourage global climate change. It is simply sucked out and converted to a solid material.

The process itself is somewhat technical, but is more stable, less expensive, and more useful than other carbon fiber production methods. Lithium oxide is first dissolved in lithium carbonate. It then combines with atmospheric CO2. Running voltage through this combination yields O2, carbon and more lithium oxide. The process can then repeat.

A final, staggering statistic: using this method on a larger scale could “remove enough carbon dioxide to make global atmospheric levels return to pre-industrial levels within 10 years, even if we keep emitting the greenhouse gas at a high rate during that period.” – Mike Orcutt, writer for Technology Review.

This means that we could see the current spike in the emissions graph descend back to levels observed in around 1900. 100+ years of damage could be reversed in under a decade.

Demand doesn’t yet seem high enough to put this new technology into practice, but it breathes hope into the concept of a restored atmosphere. This is our planet, after all. We have been damaging it. Now we have another tool to fix it.

A short video from Discovery Channel explaining the process: 

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