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Researchers Capture Carbon Dioxide and Turn it Back to Coal


Researchers discovered a way to turn carbon dioxide back into coal.

Carbon capture as a mean for mitigation of climate change, is quite a hot topic. Discussions have covered all aspects of the technique- theory, practice, viability, implementation, impact.  It even made it into the official IPCC reports as one of the most promising solutions to the climate problems. It is seen as the “quick fix” that everyone is looking for.

I like the idea of carbon capture quite a lot. Trapping the emissions before they exit the factory floor, or extracting the excess amount from the atmosphere. Either way, there is hope in the approach. We made the mess, we have to clean it. We can no longer rely that nature will restore itself, because the damage that we have caused is already very severe.

A recent study, published in Nature Communications, caught my attention. The research comes from a team at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. It offers a promising technique to cheaply convert carbon dioxide back into coal.

According to the authors of the study, until now, similar techniques have been quite expensive. This is due to the special temperature conditions, required for the gas to turn into solid. However, the team showed that if you add a liquid metal as a catalyst, the process can take place at room temperature. This makes it viable and easily scalable.

Of course, not any liquid metal would do the trick. What worked best was a liquid alloy made of cerium, tin, gallium and indium. The alloy is carefully stored in a glass container with a wire running through it. This was the ideal set up, which allowed solidification of carbon dioxide. All that was needed was a bit of electricity and water.

The team executed the following process. They placed the alloy in the tube, introduced carbon dioxide and sent electricity down the wire. They saw that this results in the formation of carbon flakes on top of the alloy, with a byproduct of oxygen.

The study seems quite comprehensive and interesting, but it got me thinking. Are all carbon capture techniques good for the environment? Is there a point at which we can say that the process is great, but it does not contribute to the overall aim? And lastly, is it considered OK to continue polluting the atmosphere just because we find a way to clean it up?

Here is my dilemma. I know that this is a breakthrough technology, and can solve quite a number of our immediate climate- and pollution-related problems. However, should we celebrate a technology, which just generates more coal? The authors say that the carbon flakes can be turned into carbon fiber materials, or make them into carbon supercapacitors for electric vehicles.

I do not know why, but I have the feeling that making more coal for burning would be the easiest and most widely acceptable application (if the technology gets materialized and scaled). As a result, we might be moving towards solving the climate issue with a quick fix. However, by burning it again, we do not do anyone any favors. The health related issues: lung cancer, breathing problems, asthma- these are usually triggered a lot earlier, and are definitely irreversible.

I am curious to hear some opinions.

Image (c) Shuttersock

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