Innovative way of capturing CO2 developed by ICIQ

13 June 2018

CHEMICAL NEWS
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2018 is the European year of Cultural Heritage and the starting point for Nemosine, a EU funded project to preserve films, photographs and records for longer.

ICIQ (acronym of Catalan Institute for Chemical Research) ICIQ researchers discovered a new material that 'catches' CO2 molecules. The key of this innovation is found in the synthesis, carried out two years ago, of a compound of dust that in chemistry is called MOF (Metal Organic Framework). The peculiarity of this type of compounds is that they have a structure with channels at the atomic structure level. ICIQ researchers have discovered that these channels are highly selective with the CO2 molecule.

How it works

Cristina Sáenz de Pipaón, ICIQ scientist and team research leader, explains how it works: "when we pass a mixture of gaseous molecules, among which there is CO2, through a tube or pipe with the presence of this compound, CO2 molecules move at a lower speed than the other molecules. The fact that the carbon flux slows down allows us to separate it from the rest. The compound that has these properties can be integrated into a polymer, so a membrane that will retain these same properties, can be made".

The innovative technology, developed completely at ICIQ, incorporates this blue compound in a few plastic sheets -a membrane- that, rolled up, can be introduced into pipes to capture CO2 molecules and separate them from the rest of the gases. This is very useful in the management of biogas, a renewable energy source with immense potential.

Biogas is a fuel that is obtained from the fermentation of compost and biomass. It is made up mainly by methane and carbon dioxide. Methane emitted directly into the atmosphere contributes -like CO2- to the greenhouse effect that causes Climate Change. "But once captured separately, both gases have an added value that we can take advantage of," underlines Cristina Sáenz de Pipaón. Methane is the popular 'natural gas' used in millions of households and industries around the world.

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Industry applications

One application of the new membranes is extracting CO2 from biogas and leaving it with a high content of methane to be able to inject it into the distribution network. "Currently, to separate the CO2 from the biogas, it is necessary to use a lot of energy, while with our system the costs could be greatly reduced because we do not need any compressor and then we would save energy" says Sáenz de Pipaón.

The main problem for purifying biogas today is the methods used that are expensive and very polluting. The membranes developed at the ICIQ are more sustainable because they work at atmospheric pressure, without cooling, and can save more than 25% in electricity compared to other methods. This could make many biogas plants profitable and viable. Although in Europe there are just 500 plants where the biogas is refined, beyond 2020 is expected to be more than ten thousand.

On the other hand, carbon dioxide has many applications: from the iron and steel sector to the food industry (bubbles of carbonated drinks or filling of lettuce bags are mainly CO2). "There are companies that would be interested in CO2. We could imagine that a company would capture its own CO2 and use it in a process, which would be very appealing economically. It would be a win-win situation". Sáenz de Pipaón thinks is a matter of time that this innovation could be widely used in the industry.

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Into the market

Seeing the potential of this technology, the ICIQ research team that worked on it decided to patent it. The innovative technology will be marketed through a spin-off company: Orchestra Scientific. The firm has already attracted the investors from around Spain and it seeks partners who want to exploit it. In addition, it investigates new applications for its membranes, such as the separation of CO2 from polluting emissions in general in order to avoid emitting them into the atmosphere.

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