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Catalytic combo converts greenhouse gas CO2 to solid carbon nanofibers

Jan. 15, 2024.
2 min. read 3 Interactions

"This approach could successfully lock carbon away in a useful solid form to offset or even achieve negative carbon emissions"— researchers

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Amara Angelica

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Amara Angelica is Senior Editor, Mindplex

Converting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into valuable carbon nanofibers. The process uses tandem electrocatalytic (blue ring) and thermocatalytic (orange ring) reactions to convert the CO2 (teal and silver molecules) plus water (purple and teal) into “fixed” carbon nanofibers (silver), producing hydrogen gas (H2, purple) as a beneficial byproduct. The carbon nanofibers could be used to strengthen building materials such as cement and lock away carbon for decades. (credit: Zhenhua Xie/Brookhaven National Laboratory and Columbia University; Erwei Huang/Brookhaven National Laboratory)

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory and Columbia University have developed a way to convert carbon dioxide (CO2), a potent greenhouse gas, into carbon nanofibers.

The new method, which uses tandem electrochemical and thermochemical reactions, runs at relatively low temperatures and ambient pressure.

Locking carbon away

As the scientists describe in the journal Nature Catalysis, this approach could successfully lock carbon away in a useful solid form to offset or even achieve negative carbon emissions.

Unlike current methods, “you can put the carbon nanofibers into cement to strengthen the cement,” said Jingguang Chen, a professor of chemical engineering at Columbia with a joint appointment at Brookhaven Lab who led the research. “That would lock the carbon away in concrete for at least 50 years, potentially longer. By then, the world should be shifted to primarily renewable energy sources that don’t emit carbon.”

As a bonus, the process also produces hydrogen gas (H2), a promising alternative fuel that, when used, creates zero emissions.

The tandem two-step 

“We found a process that can occur at about a relatively low 400 degrees Celsius, which is a much more practical, industrially achievable temperature.”

The trick was to break the reaction into stages and to use two different types of catalysts—materials that make it easier for molecules to come together and react.

The scientists started by realizing that carbon monoxide (CO) is a much better starting material than CO2 for making carbon nanofibers (CNF). Then they backtracked to find the most efficient way to generate CO from CO2.

For the second step, the scientists turned to a heat-activated thermocatalyst made of an iron-cobalt alloy. It operates at temperatures around 400 degrees Celsius, significantly milder than a direct CO2-to-CNF conversion would require. They also discovered that adding a bit of extra metallic cobalt greatly enhances the formation of the carbon nanofibers.

Truly carbon-negative

“By coupling electrocatalysis and thermocatalysis, we are using this tandem process to achieve things that cannot be achieved by either process alone,” Chen said.

If these processes are driven by renewable energy, the results would be truly carbon-negative, opening new opportunities for CO2 mitigation, the researchers say.

Citation: Xie, Z., Huang, E., Garg, S. et al. CO2 fixation into carbon nanofibres using electrochemical–thermochemical tandem catalysis. Nat Catal (2024). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41929-023-01085

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