Porous Crystal Supersuckers Capture Carbon

Porous crystals could scrub industrials fumes, clean the air in submarines, space station

2 min read
Porous Crystal Supersuckers Capture Carbon
Illustration: Thomas McDonald/Jarad Mason/Jeffrey Long/UC Berkeley

Porous crystals could scrub carbon dioxide from industrial fumes for half the energy often needed now, scientists say. These novel materials could also help clean the air in submarines and on the International Space Station.

All in all, these new materials could slash the amount of energy now consumed in carbon capture by half or more, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley say. They detailed their findings in the March 12 issue of the journal Nature.

Power plants often burn coal and other fossil fuels, releasing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Power plants designed to stem their carbon dioxide emissions typically capture the gas by bubbling their fumes through water loaded with alkaline amines. To release the gas for sequestering underground, the liquid is heated up to 150 degrees Celsius. The entire process is expensive, consuming about 30 percent of the power generated.

Instead of using amine solutions, scientists Berkeley and their colleagues investigated crystals known as metal-organic frameworks (MOFs). These materials combine metal nodes with organic linker molecules, and are riddled with microscopic channels.

The researchers took MOFs and modified them with nitrogenous compounds known as diamines. They found that carbon dioxide can quickly both load onto and come off these porous crystals at specific temperatures and pressures.

The scientists can tune these crystals to capture carbon dioxide at various temperatures, such as the 40-degrees Celsius heat of fumes from a power plant or the room-temperature air of a submarine or a space station. These materials can then release the carbon dioxide when heated by only about 50 degrees Celsius instead of the 80 to 110 degrees Celsius required in conventional carbon capture. In addition, because these compounds are solid, they also do not require the huge energy costs required to heat the water used in standard carbon scrubbing techniques.

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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