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Addressing Carbon Dioxide Concerns with Newly Discovered Photocatalytic Materials



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Global Carbon Dioxide emission volume is the gravest challenge we face today. These emissions have particularly grown into becoming existence-threatening over the last 75 years. 

In 1950, the world emitted 6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. By 1990, it had become 20 billion tonnes. And now it is more than 35 billion tonnes. The United States alone has emitted around 400 billion tonnes of Carbon dioxide since 1751, almost one-fourth of all emissions to date. Since 1751, the cumulative global volume of Carbon Dioxide emission has been 1.5 trillion tonnes. 

Carbon Dioxide can come from many sources, including burning fossil fuels, wildfires, volcanic eruptions, etc. It is harmful because it is a heat-trapping gas. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses form a blanket or cap to trap heat that the planet could otherwise have radiated into space. 

What is more concerning is that carbon dioxide's heat-trapping capabilities are enormous, and a minor volume of atmospheric carbon dioxide can trap mammoth volumes of heat. The more-than-35 billion-tonne emission figure that we discussed is the result of the mere presence of carbon dioxide to the scale of 0.04% of the atmosphere

When explaining how negligible is the presence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Jason Smerdon, a climate scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, drew the following analogy: 

“If someone my size drinks two beers, my blood alcohol content will be about 0.04 percent.” 

However, he then goes on to remind us that even a small volume of a substance can bring unfavorable consequences that go beyond repair. He goes on to say: 

“It doesn't take that much cyanide to poison a person. It has to do with how that specific substance interacts with the larger system and what it does to influence that system.”

Therefore, the heat-trapping properties of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are a threat that needs to be dealt with with utmost urgency and sincerity. 

Climate and Clean Air Coalition, a UNEP-convened initiative, admits this urgency in the most articulate terms possible. It says: 

“We are running out of time to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius.”

According to Durwood Zaelke,  Chair of the Committee and President of the Institute for Governance and International Development (IGSD):

“We can't solve a fast-moving problem like climate change with slow-moving solutions. Speed is our new metric—speed to cut SLCPs by 2030, to achieve clean energy and net zero emissions by 2050, and to remove a growing share of the carbon dioxide we've already emitted.” 

Zaelke further quantifies the target by saying:  

“Cutting SLCPs can avoid 0.6 degrees of warming by mid-century and have a super role to play if we want to keep warming to 1.5 degrees.” 

Here, SLCPs stand for short-lived climate pollutants. Addressing carbon dioxide concerns is the need of the hour. Catering to unprecedented urgency won't be possible without innovative solutions. In the following segments, we discuss such innovative ways that have emerged recently. 

Researchers Show Way to Turn Carbon Dioxide into Sustainable Fuel

An international team of researchers, comprising representatives from the University of Nottingham's School of Chemistry, the University of Birmingham, the University of Queensland, and the University of Ulm, has designed a material that can be seen as a significant and decisive shape in producing new green fuels.

More about the Material

The material is derived from copper anchored on nanocrystalline carbon nitride. The copper atoms rest within the nanocrystalline structure, allowing electrons to move from carbon nitride to carbon dioxide. This movement is pivotal in producing methanol from carbon dioxide under solar irradiation. 

If it successfully achieves scale, the procedure will solve one of the most crucial problems in tackling the threats posed by carbon dioxide. 

Carbon dioxide, the most significant agent of global warming, can be converted into useful products. However, so far, those conversion processes have required us to depend on fossil fuel-sourced hydrogen. Solar power is being used for the first time. 

The research validates the need for developing alternative methods, based on photo and electrocatalysis, processes that efficiently leverage sustainable solar energy and the abundance of water. 

According to Dr Madasamy Thangamuthu, one of the research fellows in the School of Chemistry: 

“There is a large variety of different materials used in photocatalysis. It is important that the photocatalyst absorbs light and separates charge carriers with high efficiency. In our approach, we control the material at the nanoscale. We developed a new form of carbon nitride with crystalline nanoscale domains that allow efficient interaction with light as well as sufficient charge separation.”

Click here for a list of top carbon capture stocks.

More about the Process

The heating process used in the research ensured that carbon nitride reached the required level of crystallinity, essential for maximizing the material's potential for photocatalysis. The process also involved magnetron sputtering to deposit copper without using solvents. This absence of solvents allowed intimate contact between semiconductor and metal atoms. 

According to Tara LeMercier, a PhD student at the University of Nottingham School of Chemistry:

“Even without copper, the new form of carbon nitride is 44 times more active than traditional carbon nitride. However, to our surprise, the addition of only 1 mg of copper per 1 g of carbon nitride quadrupled this efficiency. Most importantly, the selectivity changed from methane, another greenhouse gas, to methanol, a valuable green fuel.”

Overall, the experiment was pioneering in that it used catalysts that only consisted of sustainable elements. According to the School of Chemistry Professor Andrei Khlobystov:

“Carbon dioxide valorization holds the key to achieving the UK's net-zero ambition. It is vitally important to ensure the sustainability of our catalyst materials for this important reaction. A big advantage of the new catalyst is that it consists of sustainable elements—carbon, nitrogen, and copper—all highly abundant on our planet.”

Companies worldwide are working on turning carbon into green energy. Some of these companies have empowered us with really exciting, innovative, and effective solutions. 

#1. Climeworks

Climeworks - Capturing CO2 from air

Climeworks is known for its direct air capture and storage facilities, which remove carbon dioxide from the air. In addition to operating its carbon removal facilities, Climeworks also partners with others to secure a full portfolio of high-quality solutions for the global net-zero strategy.

The company is active across the world and offers diverse solutions tailored to specific needs. For example, in Iceland, the company, with the help of its storage partner Carbfix, transports carbon dioxide deep underground and makes it react with basalt rock through a natural process so that the harmful emission can transform into stone and remain safely encapsulated for over 10,000 years. 

In the United States, Climeworks has announced three projects under the banner of the United States Department of Energy's Regional DAC Hubs program. Project Cypress, of which Climeworks has been a developing partner, will deploy the direct air capture method to remove excess carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere to prevent worsening extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, droughts, and floods, in the long term. 

In Zurich, Switzerland, Climeworks has developed a facility that helps produce carbon-neutral vegetables. Its direct air capture plant pumps the gas into greenhouses, boosting the plant's photosynthesis and increasing its yield by up to 20%. Climeworks says it will extract around 900 tonnes of CO2 a year from the air.

According to Matt Lucas of the Centre for Carbon Removal:

“Technologies to capture CO2 from the air, like Climeworks' units, have the potential for the sort of steep price declines that we've seen from solar, wind, and batteries, which are also factory manufactured products.”

On April 9th, 2024, Climeworks received 2.2 million CHF (26m NOK) in Norwegian funding from Enova, the state enterprise owned by the Norwegian government's Ministry of Climate and Environment. 

Two years ago, Climeworks had signed an equity round of CHF 600 million (USD 650 million). The list of investors included several well-known and large institutional technology and infrastructure investors globally.

#2. Heirloom Carbon

World first: CO2 captured from the air by Heirloom locked-up in concrete

Heirloom Carbon has built the first commercial direct air capture facility in the United States. Powered fully by renewable energy, the facility permanently removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

It leverages the process of carbon mineralization, where rocks like Limestone—known as natural carbon sinks—capture vast amounts of CO2 over time. As one of the most abundant rocks on the planet, Limestone can capture massive amounts of CO2 from the air over the years. And Heirloom Carbon's technology expedites this process to mere days. 

Heirloom's technology has multiple benefits. It permanently removes carbon dioxide, ensuring the gas remains safely stored underground for eternity. Heirloom's services also have a minimal environmental footprint, as its facilities can remove 50 tons of CO2 per square meter and can be sited on non-arable land.

With time, Heirloom believes its services will become optimally cost-effective, with its carbon removal credits costing less than US$100 per ton of carbon dioxide by 2035. 

In April 2022, Heirloom raised US$ 1 million as a grant from the Mask Foundation and XPRIZE. It raised US$ 53 million in series A from AENU and a dozen other investors on March 17th, 2022. In June 2021, Heirloom received a grant worth US$255,737 from the National Science Foundation. 

Focus on a Comprehensive Carbon Emission Tackling Plan

Carbon Emission Capture

Such a plan looks at the overall lifecycle of carbon emission and plans to tackle it everywhere in the most prudent, site-optimized, efficient way possible. For instance, solutions like Climate TRACE help identify global emission hotspots with satellites and machine learning. Companies like CarbonChain, on the other hand, help reduce emissions in the supply chain by assisting companies in profiling their current emissions and finding ways to reduce them through the use of artificial intelligence. Recognizing energy leaks is also a part of this comprehensive plan. 

Once the identification process is complete, there are three possible ways to tackle carbon dioxide concerns. The first one focuses on stopping further climate damage from carbon dioxide emissions. The second one deals with boosting energy efficiency so that we can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. The third one, which is also the most ambitious among the three, attempts to reverse the damage that has already happened. 

As for specific solutions, many ideas have evolved. Scientists have advocated for farming plants or seaweeds that can absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while they grow, simultaneously serving as a renewable energy source. More path-breaking and radically innovative experiments involve instances like a new polymer that can collect solar power. These polymers can then be applied to textiles so that our clothes double up as green and mobile sources of energy. 

Over the years, many enticing applications and solutions have been developed in the area of damage reversal. For instance, scientists are working with carbon-based concrete that releases CO2 from industrial exhaust into synthetic Limestone, a key ingredient of concrete. In this regard, we must remember that the production of concrete accounts for 4% to 8% of the world's CO2 emissions. 

Work is also ongoing to develop carbon-eating crops, carbon-sequestering fertilizers, and much more. 

With all these innovations, we must ensure a net 55% or greater reduction below 1990 levels by 2030 and a climate-neutrality objective by 2050. While a lot more needs to be done in the areas of transition from fossil fuel to clean, renewable energy, global cooperation must also be effective in halting deforestation, using land sustainably, and restoring nature. 

Sustained efforts will eventually help us balance the volume of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere with the capture and storage of these gases in our forests, oceans, and soil.

Gaurav started trading cryptocurrencies in 2017 and has fallen in love with the crypto space ever since. His interest in everything crypto turned him into a writer specializing in cryptocurrencies and blockchain. Soon he found himself working with crypto companies and media outlets. He is also a big-time Batman fan.