A team of researchers led by Waterloo Engineering professor Zhongwei Chen has created an advanced carbon powder to help fight global warming by reducing CO2 at factories and power plants.

Researchers at Waterloo Engineering have created a new carbon powder that could be used to reduce greenhouse gases at facilities that burn fossil fuels.

The advanced powder, developed in the lab of chemical engineering professor Zhongwei Chen, could filter and remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from emissions at factories and power plants with almost twice the efficiency of conventional materials.

“This will be more and more important in the future,” says Chen. “We have to find ways to deal with all the CO2 produced by burning fossil fuels.”

A close-up view of a carbon powder created by Waterloo Engineering researchers.

CO2 molecules stick to the surface of carbon when they come in contact with it, a process known as adsorption. Since it is abundant, inexpensive and environmentally friendly, that makes carbon an excellent material to capture CO2, a greenhouse gas that is the primary contributor to global warming.

The Waterloo researchers, who collaborated with colleagues at several universities in China, set out to improve adsorption performance by manipulating the size and concentration of pores in carbon materials.

The novel technique they developed uses heat and salt to extract a black carbon powder from plant matter. Carbon spheres that make up the powder have many, many pores and the vast majority of them are less than one-millionth of a metre in diameter.

‘Performance is almost doubled’ by new carbon powder

“The porosity of this material is extremely high,” says Chen, who holds a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in advanced materials for clean energy. “And because of their size, these pores can capture CO2 very efficiently. The performance is almost doubled.”

Once saturated with carbon dioxide in filters at large point sources such as fossil fuel power plants, the powder would be transported to storage sites and buried in underground geological formations to prevent CO2 release into the atmosphere.

The new process to manipulate the size and concentration of pores could also be used to produce optimized carbon powders for applications including water filtration and energy storage, the other main strand of research in Chen’s lab.

A paper on the CO2 capture work, In-situ ion-activated carbon nanospheres with tunable ultramicroporosity for superior CO2 capture, appears in the journal Carbon.