Imagine powering your phone with carbon dioxide

Aussie Researchers have made a proof-of-concept device that absorbs the greenhouse gas to produce electricity.

April 25, 2024
Finding ways to power the world while emitting minimal planet-warming carbon dioxide is a Holy Grail for researchers. Now, scientists in Australia have made a device that goes the other way: it consumes carbon dioxide to generate electricity.The carbon-negative power generator, reported in the journal Nature Communications, is only a small proof-of-concept laboratory-scale device right now. But it could pave the way towards a new industrial-scale carbon capture method, its developers say.

As the world hurtles towards a future where climate change could cause unlivable conditions for millions, carbon capture will play a key role in decarbonizing the energy sector, alongside renewable energy development. But current carbon capture technologies, which rely on special chemicals to draw carbon dioxide out of smokestack emissions and the air, remain costly and energy-intensive.

Professor of chemical engineering Xiwang Zhang and colleagues at the University of Queensland developed a device that produce electricity from the flow of charges. They start with microscopic flakes of an atoms-thick material called boron nitride, and coat them with a polymer called polyethyleneimine.


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The team embedded these flakes in a hydrogel that is made of 90 percent water. Then they cut the gel into 4-centimetre discs tested it in a sealed box pumped full of carbon dioxide. The coated flakes soak carbon dioxide, and produce positively and negatively charged particles. The positive ions are big and stay confined in the gel, while the much small negative ions move through the hydrogel channels, producing electricity.

“At present we can harvest around one per cent of the total energy carried intrinsically by carbon dioxide but like other technologies, we will now work on improving efficiency and reducing cost,” said Zhuyuan Wang, a postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the paper in a press release.

The researchers say there could be two uses for the device with scale up. It could be used as a portable electricity generator to power small electronics. A much larger-scale application would be to integrate the technology at an industrial carbon capture plant to produce electricity.

Source: Zhuyuan Wang et al. Electricity generation from carbon dioxide adsorption by spatially nanoconfined ion separation. Nature Communications, 2024.

Image:©Anthropocene Magazine

a diagram showing co2 clouds descending into four discs and electricity symbolised by lightening bolts flowing along wires
The UQ-developed technology absorbs carbon dioxide and generates electricity.

18 April 2024

University of Queensland researchers have built a generator that absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2) to make electricity.

Dr Zhuyuan Wang from UQ’s Dow Centre for Sustainable Engineering Innovation says the small, proof-of-concept nanogenerator is carbon negative because it consumes the greenhouse gas.

“This nanogenerator is made of two components: a polyamine gel that is already used by industry to absorb CO2 and a skeleton a few atoms thick of boron nitrate that generates positive and negative ions,” Dr Wang said.

“We’ve worked out how to make the positive ions much larger than the negative ions and because the different sizes move at different speeds, they generate a diffusion current which can be amplified into electricity to power light bulbs or any electronic device.

“In nature and in the human body, ion transportation is the most efficient energy conversion – more efficient than electron transportation which is used in the power network.”

The two components were embedded in a hydrogel which is 90 per cent water, cut into 4-centimetre discs and small rectangles and then tested in a sealed box pumped full of CO2.

“When we saw electrical signals coming out, I was very excited but worried I’d made a mistake,” Dr Wang said.

“I double-checked everything, and it was working correctly so I started dreaming about changing the world using this technology.

“This technology goes further than being carbon neutral – it consumes CO2 as it generates energy.

“At present we can harvest around 1 per cent of the total energy carried intrinsically by gas CO2 but like other technologies, we will now work on improving efficiency and reducing cost.”

Director of the Dow Centre, Professor Xiwang Zhang, said following the success of the laboratory tests, there are two potential applications for the nanogenerator in the future.

“We could make a slightly bigger device that is portable to generate electricity to power a mobile phone or a laptop computer using CO2 from the atmosphere,” Professor Zhang said.

“A second application on a much larger scale, would integrate this technology with an industrial CO2 capture process to harvest electricity.”

The development of the nanogenerator will continue through GETCO2, the ARC Centre of Excellence for Green Electrochemical Transformation of Carbon Dioxide which is led by UQ’s School of Chemical Engineering with Professor Zhang as Director.

“We want to realise the value in a problematic greenhouse gas and to change the perception of CO2,” Professor Zhang said.

“Until now CO2 has been seen as a problem to be solved but it can be a resource for the future.”


The research has been published in Nature Communications.

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