How a company based in Knoxville is turning local pollutants into ‘black gold’

19th January, 2022.      //   General Interest  // 

What if we could turn the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by power plants into something useful?
SkyNano, a company based in East Tennessee, is working to make that happen.
The first nanotube manufactured from carbon released by the Tennessee Valley Authority’s John Sevier Combined Cycle Plant in Rogersville has been produced by the firm.

SkyNano CEO and co-founder Anna Douglas is photographed inside the local tech startup's lab at the University of Tennessee's Institute for Advanced Materials and Manufacuturing in Knoxville on Friday, January 7, 2022. SkyNano recently announced its first production of carbon nanotubes from power plant emissions.

SkyNano CEO and co-founder Anna Douglas is photographed inside the local tech startup’s lab at the University of Tennessee’s Institute for Advanced Materials and Manufacuturing in Knoxville on Friday, January 7, 2022. SkyNano recently announced its first production of carbon nanotubes from power plant emissions.

The company’s carbon nanotubes might be utilized to produce things like batteries and tires that are useful and long-lasting. According to Anna Douglas, CEO and co-founder of SkyNano, it is turning pollutants into a valuable and environmentally friendly material. The company is making a high-value product at a price that is market-competitive, according to Douglas. “This is a great way to get started on the path to decarbonization right away.”

What are carbon nanotubes?
Carbon nanotubes have been used to make ultralight bicycles for the Tour de France, extremely dark pigments, un-manned boats and components in NASA spacecraft. An experimental project at IBM aims to use them as a component of computer chips. You might also find them in rechargeable batteries for your phone. They are so potentially useful that Vanderbilt nanoengineer and SkyNano co-founder Cary Pint called them “black gold.”

But what are carbon nanotubes?

They’re atomic tubes with a hexagonal layout like a soccer ball and a size so small that they can’t be seen with a standard microscope. Plasma can become as light and strong as aluminum or steel if it is coated with millions of carbon nanotubes. They can conduct electricity if you change their chemical a little. When Douglas held up a little jar of an all-black powder, he said, “This is our ultimate product.” “It looks like black carbon to the human eye, but under a microscope with a lot of power, it looks like spaghetti.” Carbon dioxide from a chimney was pumped into a lithium salt reactor and spun into nanotubes to make SkyNano’s nanotubes.

Carbon nanotubes are visible under incredibly powerful electron microscopes. This tangle of super-strong carbon spaghetti was made at SkyNano from carbon dioxide captured from TVA carbon emissions.

Carbon nanotubes are visible under incredibly powerful electron microscopes. This tangle of super-strong carbon spaghetti was made at SkyNano from carbon dioxide captured from TVA carbon emissions.

Nanotubes are created naturally in very small quantities that are difficult to track down.
In the smoke from forest fires, some carbon nanotubes spontaneously develop. It is possible that when you light a candle at home, the wick will emit carbon nanotubes as part of the smoke. Without realizing it, ancient potters and swordsmiths used nanotechnology to their advantage. Carbon nanotubes have been detected in Damascus steel swords and ancient, super-strong ceramic glazes.

Carbon nanotubes, like other components of smoke, should not be inhaled. Their long-term environmental impact, however, is unknown. Some data suggests that nanotubes can be biodegraded by bacteria.

Bringing down the cost
Since 1952, when researchers in the former Soviet Union claimed to have manufactured carbon filaments, carbon nanotubes have been discovered. However, until 1991, when Japanese scientist Sumio Ijima detailed the structure of carbon nanotubes as well as a method for making them reliably, they were a mystery. In the mid-2000s, the global market for nanotubes grew beyond research. Carbon nanotube production has expanded to almost 3,000 metric tons per year since then.

However, because to the high cost of carbon nanotubes, which start at around $100 per kilogram, the global market is currently modest. They’re made in a variety of ways, with substantial energy expenditures and harmful consequences. By utilizing a cleaner and more energy-efficient technique, SkyNano hopes to change that. An electrochemical procedure that consumes less energy and can suck carbon out of dangerous airborne carbon dioxide is used instead of the “chemical vapor deposition” method, which requires vacuum conditions at high temperatures.

Some of the carbon nanotubes local tech startup SkyNano produced from converted power plant emissions on Friday, January 7, 2022.

Some of the carbon nanotubes local tech startup SkyNano produced from converted power plant emissions on Friday, January 7, 2022.

“Electrochemistry is a really low-cost technique to do chemistry,” Douglas added. “In classical gas phase synthesis, these are efficiency figures that are just unrivaled.” Douglas’s Ph.D. dissertation at Vanderbilt University led to the creation of the method. In 2017, she was part of the first cohort of the two-year Innovation Crossroads entrepreneurship fellowship program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Capturing carbon, cornering markets
Douglas was awarded a $2.5 million grant from the Department of Energy in 2020 to show that natural gas plant exhaust may be used to make carbon nanotubes. Sustainable technology, according to Joe Hoagland, vice president of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s innovation and research division, helps the utility achieve its long-term carbon-neutrality goals.
“Once we’ve trapped the carbon, the question is, how do I use it?” Hoagland asked. “What you’d actually want to do with the carbon is make it more valuable.” TVA’s carbon dioxide emissions might create a “phenomenal” number of carbon nanotubes if the technique works at scale, according to Hoagland. For the time being, SkyNano is only generating nanotubes in modest quantities for research purposes. In the next few years, though, its executives plan to expand to commercial clientele.

“They’d practically saturate the world market if SkyNano could capture all of it and transform it into carbon nanotubes,” Hoagland said. “The market has room to expand, but both production and consumption must increase.” Douglas will then concentrate on improving the technique and developing a reactor that can capture pollutants from a power plant and convert them to nanotubes on the spot. “The majority of our electricity comes from these power plants,” Douglas remarked. “Let’s look for ways to reduce their carbon footprint.”

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