Could the next great innovation in the fight against climate change come from Oak Ridge National Laboratory?
Nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains just outside of Knoxville, Tenn., the laboratory is one of a network of federally funded innovation hubs set up by the Department of Energy, whose work has been instrumental in the development of the Internet, nuclear power, and space exploration.
Now the labs are focused on climate change. And, in early January, a startup working at the Oak Ridge lab for the past five years just released early results of a test that could have big implications for the world's efforts to mitigate climate change.
The startup is called SkyNano Technologies, and its founder, Anna Douglas, thinks her company's recent achievement could be a game-changer in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
For the last five years, SkyNano has been using ORNL facilities to develop a process that takes emissions from a power plant and converts them into a material called carbon nanotubes.
Earlier this month, the company proved that its technology works (at least in a lab) with gas captured from a power plant in Tennessee.
The core of SkyNano's innovation comes from combining a well-known chemical process that converts carbon dioxide into carbon, with cutting edge research into advanced applications for developing carbon nanotubes.
"We started saying, can we make carbon nanotubes using this core chemistry and applying the knowledge of carbon nanotube growth to this chemistry that's been around since the early 1900s," Douglas said. "We are the first group to join together these siloed academic fields of study, both of which would have a hard time breaking into the market on their own."
Carbon nanotubes are "super materials", according to Douglas. They're used as coatings and additives for materials used in everything from space travel to batteries, and can be a carbon sink in agriculture, but they're traditionally hard to make and expensive. SkyNano has the potential to change that, Douglas said.
Using captured emissions from power plants also has the ability to reduce fossil fuel consumption -- because nanotubes are traditionally made from hydrocarbons in an emissions-heavy process.
"We proved power plant flue gas emissions can be captured and turned into valuable, high-quality materials," she said in a statement earlier in January. "The next step is to scale this approach so we can help utilities convert flue gas into valuable carbon nanotubes that can then be used by battery and tire manufacturers and even inks and coatings. This demonstration is one of the first of its kind, showing the ability to make a marketable product from real-life power plant flue gas.”
The company is already in talks with the Dutch company, Aeroborne*, on launching a joint venture that would make carbon black -- a material farmers in Europe and the U.S. are using to sequester greenhouse gases in soil as a way to make money in carbon offset markets.
Manufacturers also use these materials in everything from lithium batteries, baseball bats, bicycle frames, boat hulls, and turbine blades to coatings for airplanes and rocket ships.
Nanotubes are about one-one hundred thousandth the size of a human hair and are 100 times stronger than steel at just one-sixth of the weight. They conduct heat and electricity and don't rust.
They're also in high demand. "The market going rate for carbon nanotubes today is about $100 per KG," said Douglas. "We are targeting $30 per kilogram... That’s a switching point. You can use less nanotubes to get the same performance [as traditional materials] so you can switch at cost parity and get improved functionality."
With these lower costs and an ability to nearly permanently sequester carbon dioxide Douglas thinks every carbon structure should be made from captured emissions.
"If you really replace every carbon structure with CO2 derived carbon you can make a 5% emissions reduction globally," she said. "That's a pretty meaningful number."
*An earlier version of this article misidentified NanoSky Technologies' Dutch partner.