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Scientists can now turn CO2 in the air into solid coal

The cost-effective method could revolutionize how we remove carbon from the atmosphere, particularly in regard to climate change.

Pixabay
  • A team of scientists used liquid metal and a liquid electrolyte to convert gaseous CO2 into a solid, coal-like substance.
  • Compared to current methods, the new approach could prove to be a more efficient and scalable way to remove carbon from the atmosphere and safely store it.
  • The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the global community must remove 100 billion to 1 trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by mid-century in order to avoid catastrophic global warming.

Scientists have created a method to convert carbon dioxide back into solid coal, a breakthrough that could change the ways carbon is removed from the atmosphere and permanently stored.

It's one of several recently developed negative emissions techniques that seek to make carbon capture and storage cheaper, safer and more efficient. This particular method was developed by a research team led by RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, and it uses a liquid metal electrocatalyst, containing nanoparticles of the rare-earth metal cerium, to convert the greenhouse gas into a stable, coal-like solid.

"While we can't literally turn back time, turning carbon dioxide back into coal and burying it back in the ground is a bit like rewinding the emissions clock," study co-author Dr. Torben Daeneke told The Independent. "To date, CO2 has only been converted into a solid at extremely high temperatures, making it industrially unviable."

RMIT University

Publishing their findings in the journal Nature Communications on February 26, the team described how carbon dioxide turned into solid flakes after it was dissolved and placed inside a beaker filled with an electrolyte liquid and liquid metal that were charged with an electrical current.

"By using liquid metals as a catalyst, we've shown it's possible to turn the gas back into carbon at room temperature, in a process that's efficient and scalable," Daeneke said.

Improving carbon capture and storage

Instead of being buried underground, the solid carbon produced by the method could be used as a fuel source or as feedstock, as the element is in other carbon utilization approaches.

"A side benefit of the process is that the carbon can hold electrical charge, becoming a supercapacitor, so it could potentially be used as a component in future vehicles," Dorna Esrafilzadeh, a Vice-Chancellor's Research Fellow in RMIT's School of Engineering, told The Independent. "The process also produces synthetic fuel as a by-product, which could also have industrial applications."

The ability to sell or otherwise use carbon after removing it from the atmosphere would help make carbon capture and storage methods more cost-effective, and therefore more scalable. Currently, only about 1 percent of carbon emissions are removed from the atmosphere and stored. Making it cheaper to do so could help the global community remove the 100 billion to 1 trillion tons of carbon necessary to avoid catastrophic global warming by mid-century, a number put forth by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
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Over 400 Ivy League courses are free online right now

With the coronavirus pandemic upending summer plans, now's the perfect time to learn something new.

Politics & Current Affairs
  • Although states are reopening, coronavirus has already canceled many summer plans.
  • Ivy League universities and other course providers are offering online courses for free.
  • Free online courses cover a range of academic and personal-growth topics.
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    What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

    Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth.

    Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

    Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
    Strange Maps
    • J.R.R. Tolkien hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
    • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
    • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
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    Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

    The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

    An eight-metre-long Whale shark swims with other fish at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium on February 26, 2010 in Motobu, Okinawa, Japan.

    Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
    Surprising Science
    • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
    • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
    • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
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