Carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that's the biggest contributor to global warming, could have a second life in heavy industry -- and its use could go a long way toward solving the problems its emissions have helped create.
Around the country a clutch of startups are speeding up efforts to turn captured carbon dioxide into carbon nanotubes, carbon black, and in some cases... just carbon as a way to do more than just capture emissions. These companies intend to store the carbon in industrial products that can last for decades.
And these businesses are getting closer to commercialization.
One of these businesses is SkyNano Technologies.
Founded by Anna Douglas, and initially developed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratories outside of Knoxville, Tenn., SkyNano is about to flip the switch on a continuous production line of carbon nanotubes made from carbon dioxide.
It's a big jump up from the batch processing the company had previously done and SkyNano is already selling samples to undisclosed customers ranging from battery manufacturers, to tire companies, and even coatings companies, Douglas said.
"We are the only company making really high quality, small-diameter carbon nanotubes from CO2," Douglas said in an interview. "There are groups that are doing that are doing other structures of carbon."
A growing number of startups are looking at converting carbon dioxide into something other than synthetic fuels or plastics. That's because these products are potentially longer lasting and could lock up CO2 for longer periods of time.
That's what Saratoga Energy is pursuing with its work into carbon nanotube production as well.
Back in 2019 when the company graduated from the prestigious startup accelerator program, YCombinator, chief executive Drew Reid touted the promise of Saratoga's technology.
“The current carbon nanotube market is only about $5 billion,” Reid said at the time. “But if you can sell carbon materials for one-twentieth the price — which we can do — this market explodes. Completely new applications in aerospace, batteries, roads, concrete, and carbon fiber open up, and carbon nanotubes become a $100 billion market. And no one else can compete with us on technology or on price.“
For Douglas, the idea is that size matters. Her manufacturing process can make much smaller nanotubes that have a broader range of applications than her competitors.
Stuart Licht and his team at Carbon Corp. are among those competitors. Licht and his team at George Washington University have been researching ways to convert carbon dioxide into solid nanotubes since 2015.
Just last year, the Carbon Corp team was named a semifinalist in the $100 million Musk Foundation carbon capture X-Prize (a competition to identify the most promising new carbon capture technologies).
We know it is absolutely imperative to do everything in our power to stop the catastrophic impacts of climate change,” said Licht, the founder of Direct Air Capture and Carbon Corp. “With our DAC technology, we have the capability to turn harmful greenhouse gases into nanocarbons of amazing strength and conductivity that will one day be applied to help create better bridges, less polluting plastics, better lubricants, and advanced electronic, impervious textiles, medical and consumer devices.”