By combining fundamental physics principles with the power of computers, scientists have identified new, low-cost materials that have the potential to capture atmosphere-warming carbon dioxide before it is emitted from fossil-fuel-burning power plants.
The research being presented March 3 at the 2014 APS March Meeting in Denver, CO.
The idea of sucking up CO2 emissions at the source is not new, but current technology makes it too expensive, says Yuhua Duan, a researcher at the National Energy Technology Lab in Pittsburgh, Penn. “We try to find new materials that can capture CO2 at a minimal cost,” he said.
Duan and his colleagues used computer simulations to predict the CO2-absorbing properties of a large database of materials. The models gave the researchers the power to easily adjust their search criteria for the different operating conditions expected in different types of power plants.
In some cases the researchers found that no single material performed optimally at the desired temperature and pressure, but that a combination of materials might do the trick. For example, magnesium oxide is a cheap CO2 absorber, but operates best at a temperature approximately 50-100 degrees lower than would normally be found in a coal gasification power plant. The researchers discovered that adding sodium oxide to the magnesium oxide could, however, create a hybrid material that would capture CO2 at the higher desired temperature.
The simulation methods Duan uses to screen materials for promising industrial properties will, he hopes, draw more physical scientists into a field of study that has largely been the purview of chemists and engineers. “CO2 capture is an important environmental issue, but has not attracted enough attention from physicists,” he said.