Carbon Dioxide ‘Sponge’ Could Ease Transition to Cleaner Energy?

Plastic that soaks up carbon dioxide could someday be used in plant smokestacks. via American Chemical Society

Plastic that soaks up carbon dioxide could someday be used in plant smokestacks.
via American Chemical Society

A sponge-like plastic that sops up the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) might ease our transition away from polluting fossil fuels and toward new energy sources, such as hydrogen.

The material — a relative of the plastics used in food containers — could play a role in President Obama’s plan to cut CO2 emissions 30 percent by 2030, and could also be integrated into power plant smokestacks in the future.

The report on the material is one of nearly 12,000 presentations at the 248th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world’s largest scientific society, taking place here through Thursday.

“The key point is that this polymer is stable, it’s cheap, and it adsorbs CO2 extremely well. It’s geared toward function in a real-world environment,” says Andrew Cooper, Ph.D. “In a future landscape where fuel-cell technology is used, this adsorbent could work toward zero-emission technology.”

CO2 adsorbents are most commonly used to remove the greenhouse gas pollutant from smokestacks at power plants where fossil fuels like coal or gas are burned. However, Cooper and his team intend the adsorbent, a microporous organic polymer, for a different application — one that could lead to reduced pollution.

The new material would be a part of an emerging technology called an integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC), which can convert fossil fuels into hydrogen gas. Hydrogen holds great promise for use in fuel-cell cars and electricity generation because it produces almost no pollution. IGCC is a bridging technology that is intended to jump-start the hydrogen economy, or the transition to hydrogen fuel, while still using the existing fossil-fuel infrastructure. But the IGCC process yields a mixture of hydrogen and CO2 gas, which must be separated.

Cooper, who is at the University of Liverpool, says that the sponge works best under the high pressures intrinsic to the IGCC process. Just like a kitchen sponge swells when it takes on water, the adsorbent swells slightly when it soaks up CO2 in the tiny spaces between its molecules. When the pressure drops, he explains, the adsorbent deflates and releases the CO2­, which they can then collect for storage or convert into useful carbon compounds.

The material, which is a brown, sand-like powder, is made by linking together many small carbon-based molecules into a network. Cooper explains that the idea to use this structure was inspired by polystyrene, a plastic used in styrofoam and other packaging material. Polystyrene can adsorb small amounts of CO2 by the same swelling action.

One advantage of using polymers is that they tend to be very stable. The material can even withstand being boiled in acid, proving it should tolerate the harsh conditions in power plants where CO2 adsorbents are needed. Other CO2 scrubbers — whether made from plastics or metals or in liquid form — do not always hold up so well, he says. Another advantage of the new adsorbent is its ability to adsorb CO2 without also taking on water vapor, which can clog up other materials and make them less effective. Its low cost also makes the sponge polymer attractive. “Compared to many other adsorbents, they’re cheap,” Cooper says, mostly because the carbon molecules used to make them are inexpensive. “And in principle, they’re highly reusable and have long lifetimes because they’re very robust.”

Cooper also will describe ways to adapt his microporous polymer for use in smokestacks and other exhaust streams. He explains that it is relatively simple to embed the spongy polymers in the kinds of membranes already being evaluated to remove CO­2 from power plant exhaust, for instance. Combining two types of scrubbers could make much better adsorbents by harnessing the strengths of each, he explains.

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Edible Carbon Dioxide Sponge

All-Natural Nanostructures Could Address Pressing Environmental Problem

A year ago Northwestern University chemists published their recipe for a new class of nanostructures made of sugar, salt and alcohol. Now, the same team has discovered the edible compounds can efficiently detect, capture and store carbon dioxide. And the compounds themselves are carbon-neutral.

The porous crystals — known as metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) — are made from all-natural ingredients and are simple to prepare, giving them a huge advantage over other MOFs. Conventional MOFs, which also are effective at adsorbing carbon dioxide, are usually prepared from materials derived from crude oil and often incorporate toxic heavy metals.

Other features of the Northwestern MOFs are they turn red when completely full of carbon dioxide, and the carbon capture process is reversible.

The findings, made by scientists working in the laboratory of Sir Fraser Stoddart, Board of Trustees Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, are published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS).

“We are able to take molecules that are themselves sourced from atmospheric carbon, through photosynthesis, and use them to capture even more carbon dioxide,” said Ross S. Forgan, a co-author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow in Stoddart’s laboratory. “By preparing our MOFs from naturally derived ingredients, we are not only making materials that are entirely nontoxic, but we are also cutting down on the carbon dioxide emissions associated with their manufacture.”

The main component, gamma-cyclodextrin, is a naturally occurring biorenewable sugar molecule that is derived from cornstarch.

The sugar molecules are held in place by metals taken from salts such as potassium benzoate or rubidium hydroxide, and it is the precise arrangement of the sugars in the crystals that is vital to their successful capture of carbon dioxide.

“It turns out that a fairly unexpected event occurs when you put that many sugars next to each other in an alkaline environment — they start reacting with carbon dioxide in a process akin to carbon fixation, which is how sugars are made in the first place,” said Jeremiah J. Gassensmith, lead author of the paper and also a postdoctoral fellow in Stoddart’s laboratory. “The reaction leads to the carbon dioxide being tightly bound inside the crystals, but we can still recover it at a later date very simply.”

The fact that the carbon dioxide reacts with the MOF, an unusual occurrence, led to a simple method of detecting when the crystals have reached full capacity. The researchers place an indicator molecule, which detects changes in pH by changing its color, inside each crystal. When the yellow crystals of the MOFs are full of carbon dioxide they turn red.

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Treepods air-scrubbers could clean up Boston

Heading away from the use of polluting fossil fuels towards sustainable clean energy, we are discovering more and more novel ways to use or harness the wind.

Even though solar panels have become almost commonplace, we’re still seeing the technology being pushed into new ground. More projects are surfacing that harvest energy from the oceans. Meanwhile, we’re also coming up with inventive ways to monitor pollution. Now an initiative from Mario Caceres and Cristian Canonico of the Influx Studio in Paris, working with SHIFTboston, is looking to roll out a man-made forest of air-cleaning Treepods throughout Boston … which are powered by solar and kinetic energy.

SHIFTboston is an incentive aimed at focusing new, exciting, innovative and environmentally responsible ideas to transform Boston into a more dynamic city. Hoping to help the city of Boston reduce its carbon dioxide, Caceres and Canonico from Influx Studio in Paris have come up with what they describe as a CO2-scrubbing living machine called Treepods, that is said to “embody and artificially enhance the capacity of trees to clean the air.”

The carbon dioxide removal process used by Treepods is based on technology developed by Dr Klaus Lackner, director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at Columbia University. It enables the energy-efficient capture of carbon dioxide from air. He was inspired by his daughter’s prize-winning 8th grade project which successfully extracted carbon dioxide from the air using a fish tank pump and a battery, and proceeded to create a machine which cleansed the air like a living tree.

Influx Studio says that an eco-friendly, alkaline resin within the Treepods structure will react with the air around it and strip it of carbon dioxide. The cleansed air will then be free to go on its way. When this CO2-drenched resin reacts with water it will then release the carbon dioxide for storage.

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