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Going carbon negative: Designing EVs for the environment

Posted: 04 Mar 2016     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:George Washington University  Vanderbilt University  electric vehicle  lithium-ion batteries  carbon negative 

A team of scientists has found a way to develop electric vehicles (EVs) that are not only carbon neutral but carbon negative. Essentially, it is capable of reducing the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide as they run. The researchers were able to do this by demonstrating how the graphite electrodes used in the lithium-ion batteries that enables electric cars can be replaced with carbon material recovered from the air.

The recipe for converting carbon dioxide gas into batteries is described in the paper titled "Carbon Nanotubes Produced from Ambient Carbon Dioxide for Environmentally Sustainable Lithium-Ion and Sodium-Ion Battery Anode" published by the journal ACS Central Science.

The unusual pairing of carbon dioxide conversion and advanced battery technology is the result of a collaboration between the laboratory of assistant professor of mechanical engineering Cary Pint at Vanderbilt University and professor of chemistry Stuart Licht at George Washington University.

The team adapted a solar-powered process that converts carbon dioxide into carbon so that it produces carbon nanotubes and demonstrated that the nanotubes can be incorporated into both lithium-ion batteries like those used in electric vehicles and electronic devices and low-cost sodium-ion batteries under development for large-scale applications, such as the electric grid.

The Solar Thermal Electrochemical Process (STEP) converts atmospheric carbon dioxide into carbon nanotubes that can be used in advanced batteries. (Julie Turner/Vanderbilt University)

"This approach not only produces better batteries but it also establishes a value for carbon dioxide recovered from the atmosphere that is associated with the end-user battery cost unlike most efforts to reuse CO2 that are aimed at low-valued fuels, like methanol, that cannot justify the cost required to produce them," said Pint.

Transforming CO2 into batteries

Figure 1: A team of scientists has found a way to make electric vehicles that are not only carbon neutral but carbon negative, capable of actually reducing the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide as they operate.

The project builds upon a solar thermal electrochemical process (STEP) that can create carbon nanofibres from ambient carbon dioxide developed by the Licht group and described in the journal Nano Letters last August. STEP uses solar energy to provide both the electrical and thermal energy necessary to break down carbon dioxide into carbon and oxygen and to produce carbon nanotubes that are stable, flexible, conductive and stronger than steel.

"Our climate-change solution is twofold: (1) to transform the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into valuable products and (2) to provide greenhouse gas emission-free alternatives to today's industrial and transportation fossil fuel processes," said Licht. "In addition to better batteries other applications for the carbon nanotubes include carbon composites for strong, lightweight construction materials, sports equipment and car, truck and airplane bodies."

Joining forces with Pint, whose research interests are focused on using carbon nanomaterials for battery applications, the two laboratories worked together to show that the multi-walled carbon nanotubes produced by the process can serve as the positive electrode in both lithium-ion and sodium-ion batteries.

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