Excess carbon dioxide isn’t good for the environment. I’m pretty sure most of us can agree on that. Imagine if there was a way to harness carbon dioxide directly from the air and use it for something else? One team of researchers has moved past imagining.

A group of researchers led by Stuart Licht, a professor of chemistry at George Washington University, have developed an incredible technology. They can capture carbon dioxide from the air and then convert it to carbon nanofibers and oxygen using an electrochemical process.

Here’s how the process works. Researchers use molten lithium carbonate with lithium oxide dissolved in it. The lithium oxide then combines with carbon dioxide in the air, creating more lithium carbonate. Add a bit of voltage across two electrodes dipped in molten carbonate and the reaction produces oxygen, carbon and lithium oxide. The carbon is deposited on one of the electrodes.

The researchers then showed they could make various nanofiber shapes and diameters by adjusting the amount of current used at specific times and the composition of lithium carbonate and lithium oxide.

carbon fibers

Carbon fibers

The researchers also demonstrated the ability to make very uniform fibers. But, Licht stresses the mechanisms behind the fibers formation need to be better understood.

Licht is confident his group can refine their method for even greater control over what types of fibers are made.

What are carbon nanofibers?

Carbon nanofibers are an extraordinary material. More and more it’s being used in industries like aerospace and automotive. Why? Its combination of strength and lightweight is hard to ignore. Licht also points to its electrical conductivity that is enhanced at the nanoscale.

Like most incredible materials these days, carbon nanofibers run into one major obstacle. It’s very expensive to produce.

Today, the costs surrounding carbon nanofibers is just too high. But, this new method could change that. One day, we could see carbon fiber composites replace most other building materials such as steel, concrete and aluminum.

This method also has another obvious benefit – removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Licht describes it as a “means of storing and sequestering carbon dioxide in a useful manner, a stable manner, and in a compact manner.”

The result of the process is a net removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Ok, that sounds great – but what’s a realistic scenario for the amount of carbon dioxide removed? The researchers are optimistic here. Take an area less than 10 percent of the size of the Sahara Desert. This method could remove enough carbon dioxide to make global atmospheric levels return to preindustrial levels within ten years. Even with higher greenhouse gas emissions.

This sounds awesome. When do we start? Well, demand is going to have skyrocket for the above scenario to be remotely feasible. But, the new research is promising. If researchers can nail down the method, the building industry could be about to get their hands on material that is even better than what they’re using now and affordable.

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