Converting atmospheric carbon into useful industrial materials

LA JOLLA – (May 6, 2021) Plants are unmatched in their ability to capture CO2 from the air, but this benefit is temporary, as the remaining crops release carbon into the atmosphere, mostly through decomposition. Researchers have proposed a more permanent, and even useful, fate for this captured carbon by turning plants into a valuable industrial material called silicon carbide (SiC) – offering a strategy for turning an atmospheric greenhouse gas into a material of economic and industrial value.

In a new study, published in the journal RSC Advances On April 27, 2021, scientists at the Salk Institute turned tobacco and corn husks into SiC and quantified the process in greater detail than ever. These findings are essential to help researchers, such as members of the Salk’s Harnessing Plants Initiative, assess and quantify carbon sequestration strategies to potentially mitigate climate change as CO2 levels continue to rise to unprecedented levels. .

“The study offers a very precise account of how you make this precious substance and how many carbon atoms you have removed from the atmosphere. And with that number, you can start to extrapolate the role that plants play. could play in the mitigation of greenhouse gases. also converting an industrial by-product, CO2, into valuable materials using natural systems like photosynthesis, ”explains the co-corresponding author and Prof. Salk Joseph Noel .

SiC, also known as carborundum, is an ultra-hard material used in ceramics, sandpaper, semiconductors, and LEDs. The Salk team used a previously reported method to transform plant material into SiC in three steps by counting the carbons at each step: First, the researchers grew tobacco, chosen for its short growing season, from seeds. They then froze and crushed the harvested plants into a powder and treated them with several chemicals, including a compound containing silicon. In the third and final step, the powdered plants were petrified (turned into a stony substance) to make SiC, a process that involves heating the material up to 1600 ° C.

“The rewarding part was that we were able to demonstrate how much carbon can be sequestered from agricultural waste like corn husks while producing valuable green material typically produced from fossil fuels,” says lead author Suzanne Thomas , researcher at Salk.

Using elemental analysis of plant powders, the authors measured a 50,000-fold increase in sequestered carbon from seed to plant grown in the laboratory, demonstrating the effectiveness of plants in reducing atmospheric carbon. When heated to high temperatures for petrification, plant material loses carbon in the form of various decomposition products, but ultimately retains about 14 percent of the carbon captured by the plant.

The researchers calculated that the process of making 1.8g of SiC requires around 177 kW / h of energy, with the majority of this energy (70%) being used for the furnace during the petrification step. The authors note that the current manufacturing processes for SiC lead to comparable energy costs. So while the production energy required means the SiC plant process is not carbon neutral, the team suggests that new technologies created by renewable energy companies could lower energy costs.

“This is a step towards integrating SiC into an environmentally responsible approach,” says James La Clair, co-correspondent author and visiting scientist at Salk.

Next, the team hopes to explore this process with a wider variety of plants, especially plants like horsetail or bamboo, which naturally contain large amounts of silicon.

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About the Salk Institute for Biological Studies:

Each cure has a starting point. The Salk Institute embodies Jonas Salk’s mission to dare to make dreams come true. Its internationally renowned and award-winning scientists explore the very foundations of life, seeking new insights in neuroscience, genetics, immunology, plant biology and more. The Institute is an independent, non-profit organization and an architectural landmark: small by choice, intimate by nature, and fearless in the face of any challenge. Whether it’s cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, aging or diabetes, Salk is the starting point for treatments. Find out more at: salk.edu.

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