What If We Could Turn CO2 Into an Airplane?

Researchers at The George Washington University have developed a process to turn CO2 into ultra-strong carbon nanotubes—which can be used in everything from batteries to jet airplanes.

Carbon dioxide is a colourless, odourless gas. Unfortunately, its heat-trapping abilities mean that in the atmosphere, it contributes to global warming and climate change. Worse, it’s a byproduct generated by many common human activities, including the use of landfills, factories and power plants.

Innovators around the world are tackling the problem by looking at the carbon in carbon dioxide as a potential resource. They recognize that numerous useful and valuable products we use every day contain carbon. So what if they could take the carbon out of CO2 and put it into those useful products? It’s an approach called carbon conversion.

The C2CNT team in Ashburn, VA, USA

One group of innovators who have taken on this challenge is C2CNT, a team of researchers at The George Washington University. Led by team leader, Dr. Stuart Licht, they’ve developed a process that can take waste CO2 emissions and turn them into carbon nanotubes. These nanotubes have valuable attributes, including unique conductive properties that can be used to create high-capacity batteries.

Nanotubes can also be used in the creation of carbon composites: materials known for being flexible and lightweight yet stronger than steel. You’ll find carbon composites today in everything from wind turbine blades, race cars, airplanes and bicycles.

“There’s really a huge range of applications for our technology.”

Matthew Lefler, C2CNT

“There’s really a huge range of applications for our technology,” says C2CNT team member Matthew Lefler.

C2CNT’s approach takes a stream of CO2 from, say, the smokestack of a power plant, and bubbles it through a molten carbonate bath (a hot bath of metallic salts). Add in some electricity and the carbon dioxide bubbles are split by electrolysis into pure carbon—which forms into carbon nanotubes—and oxygen.

C2CNT says their process is efficient and can compete with traditional carbon nanofiber manufacturing methods on price. They’ll have a chance to prove the effectiveness of their approach in a real world setting: C2CNT is one of ten teams of finalists in the US$20 million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, a global competition to develop breakthrough technologies that will convert CO₂ emissions from power plants and industrial facilities into valuable products. The prestigious international competition is supported by Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), an alliance of oil sands producers committed to driving innovation to create a lower-carbon, energy abundant future, and NRG a major power producer in the U.S.

Over the next year and a half, Carbon XPRIZE finalists will have a chance to prove that their technologies work in industrial-scale test facilities. C2CNT is among five finalists testing their approach using a carbon dioxide flue stream from a working natural gas power plant in Calgary, Alberta.

“For a long time, I’ve been interested in helping to eliminate climate change,” says Lefler. “So to have the opportunity to do that in this competition—it does mean a lot to me.”

While Lefler is hopeful that C2CNT can win the Carbon XPRIZE competition, his real desire is that all of the 27 semi-finalist teams who entered the competition can be successful—giving the world multiple ways of combatting climate change.

“Hopefully, all 27 technologies gain public approval, and we can implement them all so that we can prevent carbon dioxide from ever becoming a hazard again,” says Lefler.

Competition Sponsors

Cosia Lead

Cosia Participants