A team of researchers recently demonstrated a way to create carbon nanofiber—an ingredient in many high-end products—from atmospheric carbon. The BBC reports:
Their solar-powered system runs a small current through a tank filled with a hot, molten salt; the fluid absorbs atmospheric CO2 and tiny carbon fibres slowly form at one of the electrodes…the approach offers a much cheaper way of making carbon nanofibres than existing methods, according to Prof Stuart Licht of George Washington University. […]
…Prof Licht is confident his design can succeed. “It scales up very easily – the entire process is quite low energy…There aren’t any catches; there’s a necessity to work together, to test this on a larger scale, to apply some societal resources to do that,” he told BBC News.
On the one hand, this is a story about a potential breakthrough in materials science. The discovery could potentially be scaled up to source carbon nanofiber much more cheaply than current methods, according to the research team. But there’s also the unavoidable (and perhaps premature) hope that this could be a way to incentivize companies actively to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and, in doing so, help mitigate the greenhouse gas effect and climate change.
While it may be too soon to crown this the next great green hope (as is the case with so many “clean” technologies, profitably scaling it to a commercial level is the real test), this breakthrough points to humanity’s unceasing desire and ability to innovate. Malthusian environmentalists will talk at length of the problems that human development is unleashing on the planet without pausing to consider that this same pathway might provide solutions as well. As the pace of technological change accelerates, we’ll be seeing more stories like this one cropping up, and some of them will undoubtedly go on to disrupt current systems in ways we can’t now envision. And since so many of these advances involve doing or producing more with less inputs, Mother Nature should benefit as well.