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September 25, 2010

Australian Researchers: Carbon Capture Technology Well Advanced

by Diaa Bekheet

Scientists in Australia are seeking to develop so-called "molecular sponges" that will soak up carbon gases and help reduce greenhouse gas pollution.  Researchers at Sydney University have produced crystals full of microscopic holes that can retain gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.  The aim is to use the crystals in power stations.  

Scientists say Australia is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels and warmer temperatures.  Australia also has some of the world's highest per capita rates of greenhouse gas emissions.  Many in the scientific community blame greenhouse gases for the vast island's climatic shifts.

To reduce such gases, academics in Sydney are developing tiny sponges that could soak up 90 per cent of emissions from coal-fired power stations that generate most of Australia's electricity.

Dr. Deanna D'Alessandro is a molecular chemist at the University of Sydney.  She says the sponges, though small, have enormous absorbency.

"You could think of them a little like your kitchen sponge, so they are really absorbent," D'Alessandro said. "They can take up a huge amount of liquid or gas, so, in fact, if you took a tea spoon of one of the best materials we have at the moment, then it would actually have a surface area which was about the equivalent to a rugby field.  These are really highly porous materials and it basically means they can absorb a huge amount of gas. In our case greenhouse gases like CO2."    

Similar work is going on elsewhere, including Germany.

Conservationists say this type of research could give Australia the chance to clean up its dirty industrial processes.

Kellie Caught, the head of climate change at the campaign group WWF Australia, believes it would give the country time to explore longer-term renewable alternatives to burning fossil fuels.

"These technologies that can capture carbon dioxide and then store them will be beneficial in terms of retro-fitting to those coal and gas-fired power stations as well as those industrial processes," Caught said. "But these technologies don't capture 100 per cent of the carbon dioxide, so what it really means is that we need to be investing a lot more in zero-emission technologies if we want to get to zero emissions essentially."  

The Sydney team also believes its "molecular sponges" could help drive a new generation of hydrogen-powered cars.  The belief is that abundant supplies of the gas could be crammed into small units that would keep an average vehicle on the road for hundreds of kilometers.

Other scientists and many farmers in Australia have cast doubt on the effect of man-made pollution on the climate.  They stress that shifts in temperatures and sea levels are part of a natural cycle.