Carbon Dioxide and Nanotechnology

Can Nanotechnology Economically Reduce Carbon Dioxide Emissions?

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a naturally occurring gas that the plants in your garden use to produce oxygen. We inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. However, when excess carbon dioxide is produced, for example in power plant emissions, it can be a major factor in global warming.

Electric power plants fired by fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) produce about a third of the man-made carbon dioxide released into the air in the United States. Several methods exist or are under development to try to reduce the problem. The challenge seems to be developing a method that can be inexpensively and easily retrofitted into existing power plants.

Nanotechnology may be one way to help reduce carbon dioxide in a cost-effective way. One conventional method that nanotechnology may improve upon is called ‘scrubbers'. One company called CO2 Solution is using genetic engineering to produce an enzyme that is more effective in removing carbon dioxide gas from the exhaust than materials currently in use. The exhaust from a power plant bubbles through a scrubber (which CO2 Solution calls a "bioreactor") containing the enzyme. The carbon dioxide is then converted into bicarbonate in solution with water. This method, which is almost in the pilot plant stage, makes strides in improving effectiveness, but existing power plants would have to be retrofitted to use the new bioreactor, so there is probably some significant cost to implementing this solution in existing plants.

A consortium called NANOGLOWA that is funded by the European Commission is working on five different styles of nanostructured membranes that they hope will effectively remove carbon dioxide from power plant exhaust. NANAGLOWA believes that these membranes can be installed in the exhaust stream at significantly lower cost than scrubber systems. Though currently in development, pilot tests in power plants won’t begin on these for approximately five years. Following a similar approach, researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia are developing their own carbon nanotube membrane that could separate carbon dioxide from power plant exhaust. The university projects that their solution may be available in ten or fifteen years.

One complex aspect of implementing these solutions is government regulation regarding power plant emissions. Typically companies that own power plants do not make these types of changes until they are required to do so by their governments. Many plants being built today are not being designed to work with the more efficient methods being developed, but rather are being built to use cheaper but less effective methods. Depending on the country and its regulations, companies may or may not be required to retrofit plants when newer methods become a reality.

Ironically, though nanotechnology may help to create a solution to the problem, the political and economic climates of various locales may dictate that the solution will sit on the shelf. The best hope may be that nanotechnology will offer a method that is so cheap that power plant owners will eagerly implement it.

For more ideas about how nanotechnology can reduce air pollution, check out my Air Pollution and Nanotechnology Web page.

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