Amid climate change debates, a UT graduate student and a team of scientists from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) accidentally discovered a cost-efficient way to remove carbon dioxide from the air.

Neil Williams, UT graduate research assistant in the Department of Chemistry, has been involved in a research project that will capture carbon dioxide from the air and, after a chemical process, transform it into solid crystals.

“Like many scientific discoveries, this was by chance,” Williams said.

While the research was purposeful, capturing carbon was initially not. Charles Seipp, a graduate student of the University of Texas and a member of Williams' team, was attempting to grow similar crystals.

For weeks, Seipp found that the crystals he was growing contained carbonate and did not follow his current research. It was then that Seipp realized carbon was being captured from the air.

“This was completely stumbled upon,” Seipp said. “It was a fortuitous accident, if you will.”

The watery solution Seipp had been working with was left to sit, and after an advanced X-ray analysis, the team confirmed that carbon was within the crystals.

The capture of carbon from the atmosphere has become a popular strategy by scientists to balance global temperatures. While the strategies have been effective, more people are becoming concerned with carbon storage.

Releasing and recycling carbon into a gas after capturing it requires a high-energy cost. Since current carbon capture techniques use a chemical that has a strong bond with carbon dioxide, releasing the carbon requires temperatures exceeding 800 degrees Celsius.

The scientists at ORNL brought the required energy level down to 120 degrees Celsius. Using a watery, molecule-collecting compound with crystalline power, carbon dioxide is captured from the air and transformed into small crystals, which can then be removed through filtration.

Researchers' hope is to be able to heat these crystals at much lower temperatures to regenerate the carbon-capture substance for continued use.

As research expands on carbon-capture techniques, Williams noted there is potential for industrial companies to use this method in the future to prevent excessive carbon emissions.

“You could use this to try and reduce CO2 concentrations,” Williams said. “Some industries that produce a lot of CO2 could put this on their process and then capture it before it even gets out.”

The study was published through “Angewandte Chemie” scientific journal. Upon publishing the scientific study, which was led by Radu Custelcean of the Chemical Science Division at ORNL, the team noted that there were “no efforts to maximize the contact between the air and aqueous (watery) solution, or to optimize the reaction time, temperature or concentration.”

With this new discovery, Williams and the team of scientists plan to further their understanding of carbon capture. While climate change and politics may play a role in their research in the future, this team’s sole focus is on the discovery and the science at hand.

UT Sponsored Content