Small solution to a big problem
Nanochemistry could hold the key to one of the biggest challenges in the fight against greenhouse gases: how to capture, separate and transform them.
A team of leading scientists from some of Australia's top universities and research institutes, including the University of Adelaide, have joined forces to develop a chemical solution to carbon dioxide.
Awarded $6 million from the CSIRO's Science and Industry Endowment Fund (SIEF), the team will explore how smart nanomaterials - combining both metal ions and organic molecules - can be used to capture and separate CO2, and then convert it into something more useful and less damaging to the environment.
The five-year research project, called Solving the Energy Waste Roadblock, is led by the University of Sydney and involves two staff from the University of Adelaide's School of Chemistry & Physics, Dr Christian Doonan and Dr Chris Sumby.
"There have been some very exciting developments in nanomaterials in recent years that may enable us to utilise these materials in ways not realised before," Dr Doonan said.
"To give you an example of the kinds of materials we're talking about, if we had just one teaspoon of them and tried to unravel them, they would easily cover the surface of an entire tennis court.
"The specific materials we're looking at are known as metal-organic frameworks. These are very complex, very light materials with many 'holes' or 'pockets'. They have an incredible capacity to draw in and store gases such as carbon dioxide, and are able to trap a large amount of the gas in a very small space," he said.
While one part of the project focuses on the exact composition of the metal-organic frameworks being used to capture the carbon dioxide, another part of the project will look at how to give those materials catalytic properties so that, when trapped, the carbon dioxide can be converted into something useful.
This could involve converting CO2 into substances such as feedstocks for agriculture, hydrocarbon fuels, or materials that could be helpful in making solar cells.
"There are a range of possibilities available to us," said Dr Sumby.
"Once we've done our work on the chemistry, other collaborators on the project will investigate how to scale up the results and apply it to industry - such as for the removal of carbon dioxide from the flues of power plants, or in other industries.
"It's an exciting area of research, and one that we hope will make a significant and lasting impact on the greenhouse gas situation our world is currently facing," he said.
The collaborative partners in this project are: CSIRO, the University of Sydney, Monash University, the University of Melbourne, the University of New South Wales, the University of Adelaide, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and the CRC for Greenhouse Gas Technologies.
Story by David Ellis