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Nanomaterials September 2019 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Madeeha Uppal

Carbon-Capture Membranes

Why is this topic significant?

Fossil-fuel combustion continues to rise. Capture of carbon dioxide gas at many power plants is already in use as a means to address the plants' contributions to global temperature rises, but the technologies are inefficient and costly. Novel membrane technology using nanoporous graphene-based membranes may improve the carbon capture.

Description

According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, countries should endeavor to keep the increase in global temperature to below 1.5° Celsius to avoid the drastic effects of climate change. Countries will need to reduce their carbon emissions to achieve this goal, but experts agree that carbon capture and storage technologies will also play a major role. Porous materials such as polymer membranes and metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) can efficiently absorb and store large volumes of gases. Scientists from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne have created several novel nanoporous graphene-based membranes that can absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) with high selectivity. The membranes show considerably improved CO2 absorption in comparison with absorptions of current membranes. The scientists fabricated efficient membranes by functionalizing the graphene layers with polymeric chains. Some of these membranes achieved permeabilities greater than 11 times the postcombustion capture target necessary for current membranes. MOFs are also gaining considerable attention as highly porous materials with tunable properties. University of Pittsburgh scientists have used computer simulations to calculate and compare the theoretical CO2 permeabilities and selectivities of over 100,000 MOFs. They also calculated the cost models for postcombustion capture using membranes containing these MOFs, taking into account several variables such as flow rate, temperature, and pressure. Using the results, the scientists identified over 1,000 membranes that could provide carbon-capture solutions for less than $50 per ton of CO2.

Implications

Postcombustion capture—capture of CO2 from flue gases after combustion of fossil fuel—is the most mature technology in use and under research for carbon capture. It is popular because the technology can serve at existing power plants and is compatible with infrastructure already in place. The most common method for postcombustion capture uses amines, but the method has a number of drawbacks: The process is energy intensive, and the reaction is slow because of low partial pressure of CO2 in flue gases. Scientists are researching membranes for capture as not only an inexpensive alternative, but also an environmentally friendly one because it generates no by-products. And for some membranes, scientists show that they can pass the gas almost 100 times faster than gas flow in amine-based capture. Furthermore, using membranes and MOFs could potentially lower the cost of postcombustion capture to achieve the US Department of Energy's target of $40 per ton of CO2 by 2025.

Impacts/Disruptions

Carbon capture is gathering increased support from governments and organizations. However, some experts believe that carbon-capture technologies have the risk of leakage with time, and some comparison studies show that power plants that use carbon capture and sequestration are less energy efficient than renewable energy plants. One way to lower the cost of carbon capture is to convert the CO2 into useful chemicals and products. Recently, several start-ups have emerged that employ carbon-capture and -utilization techniques to produce plastics, fertilizers, and detergents. Government support and incentives (for example the Use It Act in the United States) will encourage further development of carbon-utilization projects, and experts predict that by 2030, the CO2-based products market may surpass $800 billion.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Coal-fired power plants, carbon capture and storage, gas storage, urban cleanup

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Nanotechnology for Improved Food Packaging

Why is this topic significant?

Nanotechnology can serve to create solutions for a sustainable food-and-beverage industry. Development of easy-to-recycle food packaging and coatings that increase the shelf life of food can help reduce plastic and food waste.

Description

Food packaging is often made with metallized films, which contain several layers of plastic and metal fused together to form packaging that protects food from the ingress of water and oxygen. However, metallized films are difficult to recycle because the metal and plastic require separation before recycling. Scientists are researching nanosheets of layered double hydroxides clays as alternatives to metallized films. Although traditional manufacture of these clays provides low yield, requires harsh reaction condition, and produces significant waste, scientists at Oxford University have developed a new process to synthesize aluminum and magnesium hydroxide nanosheets using amino-acid solutions. The scientists coat polyethylene terephthalate with the nanosheets, resulting in the new material's oxygen-transmission and water-vapor-transmission rates' being lower than the transmission rates of commercial metallized films.

Researchers are also using nanotechnology to create "active" food packaging in order to keep food fresh for longer; however, the possibility exists that the active agents in the packaging may leak and contaminate the food. EU-funded Nanopack is developing packaging that incorporates naturally occurring clay nanotubes made of aluminosilicates. The nanotubes slowly release antimicrobial oils that can destroy bacteria and slow the growth of mold and spoilage of food. The company claims that the nanotubes are attached to the plastic in packaging and do not come into contact with the food. Nanopack is developing packaging for bread, meat, and fruits and vegetables and hopes to demonstrate its technology in an operational environment before 2020.

Implications

Growing awareness about reducing waste and improving recycling methods in the past several years has resulted in policy makers' setting new sustainability goals for the future. The European Council has advised that by 2025, the European Union will aim to recycle 55% of its municipal waste, increasing to 65% by 2035. Using materials that are easier to recycle will help reduce waste's reaching landfills. The clay nanosheets from Oxford University are easy to recycle and, in comparison with metallized films, the nanosheets have a lower carbon footprint and superior properties. Furthermore, the nanosheets are nontoxic, and the US Food and Drug Administration designated their synthesis as generally recognized as safe, which is significant, because the nanosheets come in contact with food and ideally should have no heavy metal or produce no toxic contamination as a result of synthesis.

Impacts/Disruptions

The food-packaging market is growing; Grand View Research analysts expect the market to reach $411 billion by 2025 at a compound annual growth rate of 5%. Growing concerns about food spoilage are boosting the development of packaging solutions such as advanced barrier coatings, which represent a market growing rapidly at 45% per annum, according to a Credence Research report. The new nanosheet coatings may help to reduce further the amount of food waste each year, which amounts to 32% of total food produced and $161 billion in lost revenue.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium to High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Recycling, circular economy, consumable goods, food and beverage, bioplastics

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: