Scientists Pull Carbon Nanofibers Out Of Thin Air

Pulling some strings to capture CO2
Carbon Nanofibers
Stuart Licht/Nanoletters

Rumpelstiltskin may have been able to spin straw into gold, but even he couldn’t pull carbon fibers from thin air. Yet that’s exactly what researchers at George Washington University have managed to do.

Led by Stuart Licht, researchers have created a solar-powered process that can turn carbon dioxide, a gas that contributes to climate change, into solid carbon nanofibers.

The process works like this: Solar power goes to two electrodes immersed in a mixture of a molten salt (in this case, lithium carbonate) and lithium oxide. Carbon dioxide from the air interacts with the lithium oxide and produces carbon nanofibers, along with more lithium carbonate and oxygen.

Licht hopes that the carbon nanofibers, which are incredibly strong and durable, could one day be used in a variety of applications from construction to creating better lithium-ion batteries. If it catches on, the process might eventually take enough CO2 out of the atmosphere to help slow down climate change.

Right now the process is very small scale. It’s been done in the lab, but making it large enough to make a difference could prove to be a challenge. Paul Fennell, a chemical engineer not involved in the project, told the BBC: “If they can make carbon nanofibres, that is a laudable aim and they’re a worthwhile product to have. But if your idea is to take CO2 out of the atmosphere and produce so many carbon nanofibres that you make a difference to climate change–I’d be extremely surprised if you could do that.”

Licht has no plans to commercialize the process, but estimates that if it works, an area 10 percent of the size of the Sahara desert dedicated to this chemical reaction would be enough to mitigate climate change. It would take incredible amounts of time, money, and political capital, but if all goes well, the sky’s the limit.