A Plastic Which Soaks Up Carbon Dioxide Could be Used To Ease The Impact Of Fossil Fuels

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

An inexpensive sponge-like plastic which absorbs carbon dioxide might ease the transition from polluting fossil fuels to new energy sources.

A report on the material, a relative of the plastics used in food containers, is one of nearly 12,000 presentations at the 248th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world’s largest scientific society, in San Francisco.

“The key point is that this polymer is stable, it’s cheap, and it adsorbs CO2 extremely well,” says Dr Andrew Cooper from the University of Liverpool.

“It’s geared toward function in a real-world environment. In a future landscape where fuel-cell technology is used, this adsorbent could work toward zero-emission technology.”

Plastic which soaks up carbon dioxide could someday be used in plant smokestacks. Image: American Chemical Society

CO2 adsorbents are most commonly used to remove the greenhouse gas pollutant from smokestacks at power plants where fossil fuels such as coal or gas are burned.

However, Cooper and his team intend the adsorbent, a microporous organic polymer, for a different application, one which could lead to reduced pollution.

The new material would be a part of an emerging technology called an integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC), which can convert fossil fuels into hydrogen gas.

Hydrogen holds great promise for use in fuel-cell cars and electricity generation because it produces almost no pollution.

Integrated gasification combined cycle is a bridging technology intended to jump-start the hydrogen economy, or the transition to hydrogen fuel, while still using the existing fossil-fuel infrastructure.

The material, which is a brown, sand-like powder, is made by linking together many small carbon-based molecules into a network.

Cooper says the idea to use this structure was inspired by polystyrene, a plastic used in styrofoam and other packaging material. Polystyrene can adsorb small amounts of CO2 by a swelling action.

“Compared to many other adsorbents, they’re cheap,” Cooper says, mostly because the carbon molecules used to make them are inexpensive.

“And in principle, they’re highly reusable and have long lifetimes because they’re very robust.”

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