Scientists Transform Carbon Dioxide into Solid Carbon – and Why This Could Be Groundbreaking

Carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide! It’s true that no matter where you look in this day and age, this notorious gas is everywhere to be found – even more so if you’ve ever read one of my blog posts before. Unfortunately I will be mentioning it again today, but I promise for good reasons. 

The chemical formula for carbon dioxide. Source: geralt.

Recently scientists in Australia have discovered a method for converting carbon dioxide from its gas form into a solid carbon based residue. Not only that, but it was done at room temperature. This could have a lot of potential benefits for humanity.

Carbon storage 

As you may already know, fossil fuels are the remains of carbon based organisms. The result is that they contain a lot of carbon. One of the products of burning them is carbon dioxide. 

Through using fossil fuels, humans are releasing all of this ancient carbon back into the atmosphere. In the same breath (air quality pun intended) we’re destroying nature’s own ways of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Mainly this is done via deforestation. 

Deforestation for oil palm plantation in Indragiri Hulu, Riau Province, Indonesia. Source: Aidenvironment.

This net increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere draws a lot of interest for the development of carbon storage technologies. If we were to successfully discover a way of storing carbon – that was safe, efficient and cost effective – we could hinder the advances of climate change, giving us more time to make the change to a fully sustainable system.

From gas to stone

The paper – which was published in the journal Nature – takes a brand new approach to previous attempts. In the past there were two main methods. One was to turn the gas into a solid at very high temperatures. The second was to do it in a liquid environment. 

The former takes a lot of energy, making it quite unsustainable. The latter makes a lot of products which could damage the environment further, limiting its uselessness as a carbon storage technology. 

Another problem in previous attemps was that the catalysts were damaged by ‘coking’. A catalyst is a material which is used to allow certain reactions to occur; without it, they wouldn’t happen. Typically, reacting molecules bind to the surface of the catalyst for this to happen. Coking is the covering of the surface of the catalyst over time. The more the catalyst is covered, the less effective it becomes. 

Their new method uses a liquid metal (LM) based catalyst to convert the carbon dioxide into a solid. The main benefit is that coking does not occur. The paper suggests gallium based alloys as they are non-toxic and remain liquid at room temperature.

We’re saved!

Despite the success of the described experiments, it’s still important to keep some things in mind. First of all it takes time to develop technologies, even after discoveries. This doesn’t fit so well with the 12 years we’ve been given to change our habits. In addition, gallium is considered by the European Chemical Society to be an element which will become less available in the next 100 years. Finally, we shouldn’t be pinning all of our hopes on a technology in its earliest stages. 

What the paper does show is that there is still hope. Carbon storage technologies are currently not applicable due to fears around improper storage and leaks. By converting carbon dioxide into a solid, the storage becomes a much more viable and efficient process.

However, as citizens of the Earth, we should still be looking at what we can do to help; policy and social changes are just as important in saving the world. These scientists are doing what they can, it’s up to us to do the same. At the same time, it’s still ok to marvel in the glory that these scientists have made a more impressive conversion than when Jesus managed to turn water into wine. 

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Jack McGovan is a recent graduate in chemistry with a specialisation in ‘Energy and Sustainable Chemistry’ from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Following a job as a student journalist covering the energy transition, he has moved to Berlin where he is following his passion for working towards creating a fairer and more sustainable world. Seeing a gap in the way in which the world of science was communicated, he founded Delta-S. By writing source based content, he hopes to communicate his findings to a wider audience.