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The Machine That Promises to Turn Carbon Pollution Into 'Diamonds from the Sky'

What if we could turn atmospheric CO2 into wind turbines and building materials?

Here's some bad news: Humans have put too much carbon dioxide in its atmosphere, and it's heating the globe, rising sea levels, accelerating the sixth great extinction, and all around endangering the sustainability of civilization. Here's some good news: Humans have recently invented a neat material called carbon nanofiber, which is being used in all sorts of technologies, buildings, and products.

WHAT IF we could take the carbon from the atmosphere, and convert into handy nanofibers, and use them to provide the implements of the future. That'd be a nice earth-relieving corrective, yeah?Now, if the innovation you're going to read about were able to be scaled up and made cost-effective, it could radically restructure the world's economy and its ecology. Both, presumably, for the better. If. If, if, if. Still:

"We have found a way to use atmospheric CO2 to produce high-yield carbon nanofibers," George Washington University's Stuart Licht, Ph.D, said in a statement announcing his team's findings, which were presented today by the American Chemical Society (ACS). "Such nanofibers are used to make strong carbon composites, such as those used in the Boeing Dreamliner, as well as in high-end sports equipment, wind turbine blades and a host of other products."

"The carbon molten air battery ... is attractive due to its scalability, location flexibility, and construction from readily available resources"

Essentially, Licht and co. say they have developed a method for trapping carbon dioxide, and using an electrochemical process to turn it into carbon nanofibers. The press release calls it a "diamonds from the sky" approach.

The capture part isn't new—engineers, academics, and the coal industry have been after a way to grab carbon out of the air and, typically, to "sequester" it underground or otherwise in order to prevent it from contributing to climate change. That's the Carbon Capture & Sequestration technology you may have heard about. Alternatively, scientists, advocates, and industry folk have tried using algae, machines, or artificial trees to do the trick.

Licht's pitch has the unique potential to turn that carbon into useful materials, however; he and his team members say their molten carbon air battery is the potentially transformative part of the tech.

From the abstract of Licht's paper: "The carbon molten air battery, presented by our group in late 2013, is attractive due to its scalability, location flexibility, and construction from readily available resources, providing a battery that can be useful for large scale applications, such as the storage of renewable electricity."

The proposal calls to mind The Diamond Age; Neal Stephenson's underrated third cyberpunkish novel, set in a world in which so-called nanotech matter compilers draw resources from the air, combine it with materials from feeds, and transmogrify them into all kinds of objects.

Still, the same skepticism that applies to all CCS tech should be applied here—and that's a lot. No one has managed to show that this technology works efficiently or affordably enough to be put into widespread use. It remains deeply experimental. And environmentalist critics worry that it produces moral hazard, or the illusion that we'll eventually be able to vacuum our pollution out of the sky without correcting our dangerous habits.

But there's no disputing that this carbon-to-carbon concept is a bona fide Big Idea. If it gets legs, there's a nonzero chance the future may actually involve transforming pollution into goods.