New powder can capture carbon pollution from power plants cheaply, effectively

The technology could enable even developing nations to fight the worst effects of global warming.

To avoid seeing the most catastrophic effects of climate change, we don't just need to cut down emissions drastically in a few years. Our sources of energy also need to be wind and solar, according to an extensive United Nations report released last year.

A huge part of this effort is modifying existing power plants that are gas- and coal-fired with technologies that can make them compliant with future carbon-neutral national and international goals. This technology, carbon capture, traps carbon pollution from power plants and stores it underground in solid form.

While these technologies already exist, they are costly and energy-intensive.

A new alternative that makes the technology affordable for polluting power plants to clean up their acts. A team of chemical engineers at the University of Waterloo has developed a powder that soaks up carbon dioxide before it is released. The powder is way more efficient than conventional methods of carbon capture, according to the researchers.

New powder can capture carbon pollution from power plants cheaply, effectively

Activated charcoal (carbon) powder under a brightfield microscope. Image: Wikimedia Commons

"This technology is designed to be a real solution to a real problem the world is facing right now," Zhongwei Chen, lead researcher from the University of Waterloo, told Popular Science. "If this technology can help us do better while we find and adopt new, reliable energy sources, that’s positive."

The powder is essentially made of carbon spheres with many little pores on it that attract carbon dioxide molecules. This is by a process called 'adsorption'. These pores have been enhanced greatly by the research team to change the size and number of pores in the powder.

While the amount of carbon dioxide captured by the powder may, in fact, be many-fold higher, the way the captured carbon is disposed of is still the same. The saturated powder has to be buried underground so the carbon dioxide doesn't escape back into the atmosphere.

Representational image. Image courtesy: World Bank

Representational image. Image courtesy: World Bank

"Our powder is efficient because it has pores that are two to three times larger than a carbon dioxide molecule....(it) is able to effectively scoop up the carbon from emissions as it passes through," Chen told Popular Science.

It can also be used without any extra equipment, using raw material like sugar, molasses, rice husk or agar. This makes the new powder a renewable, easy to scale up and inexpensive option over available technologies to capture carbon today.

By removing the cost barrier from the equation, the researchers are keen to see how their technology is adopted by developed and developing nations alike. It could allow a "significant change in a very short time".

"There are not a lot of other solutions out there we can say that about," Chen concluded.

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