Utilities could burn world coal reserves to the last lump without worrying climate activists, if there were some kind of carbon flypaper to catch greenhouse gases before they joined the atmosphere.
Industry has used ammonia compounds to capture carbon dioxide for food-and-beverage use for years. Global efforts to implement carbon capture and underground storage have stalled, but scientific research into potentially better, cheaper technologies continues.
Hong-Cai Zhou, a professor of chemistry at Texas A&M University, says he is developing a better carbon trap. Zhou works on a new class of materials, called metal organic frameworks. They are porous crystalline structures that have the highest surface area of any known substance. A sugar cube-size piece of Zhou's material can provide a football-field of surface area. The substance can be "manipulated to selectively hold carbon dioxide" or other gases, says Jason Ornstein, founder of Framergy, a company that licenses Zhou's technology for commercial development. The lab received a $1 million grant from the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) in 2010.
Here's how the technology would work: A plant operator would run waste gases through a small tank containing what Zhou calls "greenhouse gas glue." The carbon dioxide would stick to the crystalline lattice, allowing other gases to flow out the other end, Zhou says. This technology would eliminate the delicate process of moving large volumes of highly pressurized gas from a power plant or cement factory to an appropriate subterranean storage site, a costly process fraught with technical, geologic and legal obstacles. Carbon dioxide captured in Zhou's molecular web could then be injected into a saline aquifer for permanent storage. Or, it can be "washed" out and reused in the production of algae-based biofuels, Ornstein says.
Engineered for hydrogen or natural gas storage, the crystalline mesh of these compounds could make it safer to handle hydrogen, an inflammable gas. Zhou and Ornstein are considering marketing the technology to operators of large fleets within three years and to power plants within five years.
Visit www.bloomberg.com/sustainability for the latest from Bloomberg News about energy, natural resources and global business.