small scale, big impact

Rice scientists develop simple but game-changing carbon capture device

Peng Zhu (left) and Haotian Wang developed a carbon-capture device prototype. Photos courtesy Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

A Rice University lab has developed an efficient, scalable way to capture carbon dioxide — and it just needs to be plugged into a power outlet to work.

The new technology developed in the lab of chemical and biomolecular engineer Haotian Wang, the William Marsh Rice Trustee Chair and an associate professor at Rice, uses electricity to remove carbon dioxide from air capture to induce a water-and-oxygen-based electrochemical reaction. The findings were shared in a study published in Nature last month.

Traditionally, carbon capture requires very energy intensive processes that need high temperatures and for the carbon that's been captured to be regenerated. The process also often requires large-scale infrastructure.

In the Wang lab's method, the small reactor can continuously remove carbon dioxide from a simulated flue gas with nearly 100 percent efficiency, generating between 10 to 25 liters of high-purity carbon using only the power of a standard lightbulb, according to a statement from Rice.

It does not create or consume chemicals, nor does it need to be heated up or pressurized, according to Wang. And it only requires a simple power source.

"The technology can be scaled up to industrial settings—power plants, chemical plants—but the great thing about it is that it allows for small-scale use as well: I can even use it in my office,” Wang says in the statement. “We could, for example, pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and continuously inject that concentrated gas into a greenhouse to stimulate plant growth. We’ve heard from space technology companies interested in using the device on space stations to remove the carbon dioxide astronauts exhale.”

Wang and lab member Peng Zhu, a chemical and biomolecular engineering graduate student at Rice and lead author on the study, initially made the discovery when working on an earlier version of the reactor intended for carbon dioxide utilization.

During this process Zhu noticed that gas bubbles flowed out of the reactor’s middle chamber when producing liquid products like acetic acid and formic acid, and that the number of bubbles would increase when more current was applied to the reactor.

This led the scientists to realize that the reactor was creating carbonate ions that were converted into a continuous flow of high-purity carbon dioxide after passing through the reactor's solid-electrolyte layer.

“Scientific discovery often requires this patient, continuous observation and the curiosity to learn what’s really going on, the choice not to neglect those phenomena that don’t necessarily fit in the experimental frame," Wang said in a statement.

A number of players in the Houston area have been making headway in carbon capture space in recent weeks.

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Department of Energy granted more than $45 million in federal funding to four Houston companies to promote the capture, transportation, use, and storage of tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

The Rice Alliance also recently named 15 startups to its Clean Energy Accelerator. A number of the fledgling companies are focused on carbon management and capture.

Video by Brandon Martin/Rice University

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A View From HETI

A View From UH

A Rice University professor studied the Earth's carbon cycle in the Rio Madre de Dios to shed light on current climate conditions. Photo courtesy of Mark Torres/Rice University

Carbon cycles through Earth, its inhabitants, and its atmosphere on a regular basis, but not much research has been done on that process and qualifying it — until now.

In a recent study of a river system extending from the Peruvian Andes to the Amazon floodplains, Rice University’s Mark Torres and collaborators from five institutions proved that that high rates of carbon breakdown persist from mountaintop to floodplain.

“The purpose of this research was to quantify the rate at which Earth naturally releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and find out whether this process varies across different geographic locations,” Torres says in a news release.

Torres published his findings in a study published in PNAS, explaining how they used rhenium — a silvery-gray, heavy transition metal — as a proxy for carbon. The research into the Earth’s natural, pre-anthropogenic carbon cycle stands to benefit humanity by providing valuable insight to current climate challenges.

“This research used a newly-developed technique pioneered by Robert Hilton and Mathieu Dellinger that relies on a trace element — rhenium — that’s incorporated in fossil organic matter,” Torres says. “As plankton die and sink to the bottom of the ocean, that dead carbon becomes chemically reactive in a way that adds rhenium to it.”

The research was done in the Rio Madre de Dios basin and supported by funding from a European Research Council Starting Grant, the European Union COFUND/Durham Junior Research Fellowship, and the National Science Foundation.

“I’m very excited about this tool,” Torres said. “Rice students have deployed this same method in our lab here, so now we can make this kind of measurement and apply it at other sites. In fact, as part of current research funded by the National Science Foundation, we are applying this technique in Southern California to learn how tectonics and climate influence the breakdown of fossil carbon.”

Torres also received a three-year grant from the Department of Energy to study soil for carbon storage earlier this year.

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