Carbon nanofibre technology to pose ethical challenge to industry?October 2015
A newly created system that sucks carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and converts it into carbon nanofibres as raw material for manufacturing could eventually pose an ethical challenge to industry.
The carbon nanofibres are produced with less energy consumption than today’s widely used metals and other materials, possibly more cheaply than conventional goods and certainly without generating carbon dioxide. Even the power for manufacturing comes from solar cells and a thermal energy collector.
The system, developed at George Washington University in Washington DC, bathes the extracted carbon dioxide in molten carbonates at extremely high temperatures, mixes it with air and introduces a low electrical charge. Carbon nanofibres emerge from this process.
The material can be used for a range of products, including fuels, bleaches, bullet-proof vests, sports equipment and airliner parts – but the biggest bonuses are that the new materials would be produced without emitting carbon dioxide, and drawing the gas out of the atmosphere would be a powerful weapon in combatting climate change.
The work is still experimental, and economies of scale are essential to making the process pay.
However, Professor Stuart Licht, the team leader, claims that if the extraction operation was expanded to cover an area smaller than 10% of the size of the Sahara, maybe 300,000 square miles, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere would be cut within ten years to pre-Industrial Revolution levels.
Licht, whose research was presented at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society, says optimistically: “We are scaling up quickly.” And he calls the new product “diamonds from the sky” – diamonds are a form of carbon.
If carbon nanofibres finally prove to be a good alternative to metals and other products now used in manufacturing, the crucial ethical question is whether companies will switch to the environmentally more beneficial material, or continue established methods to avoid the cost of adjusting.
Mike Childs, head of research at Friends of the Earth, believed manufacturers should use the new material if it is found to confer environmental benefits because “they have a moral obligation to the wider environment as well as a financial duty to shareholders”.
He insisted, nevertheless, that removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere should not be a substitute for minimising gas emissions in the first place and that companies should dispose of the new material responsibly after use.
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