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Spruce Cone Material Could Scrub CO2 Emissions

Sustainability: Scientists carbonize spruce cones to create a renewable, nanoporous adsorbent

by Janet Pelley
January 22, 2016

Photograph of a Norway spruce cone and a scanning electron micrograph of a carbonized scale from a Norway spruce cone.
Credit: ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng.
Spruce cones can be carbonized into a material with nanoscale pores that effectively soak up CO2 molecules.

Spruce cones could yield a material for capturing and storing carbon dioxide emissions that outperforms other solid sorbents, says a new study (ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng., DOI: 10.1021/acssuschemeng.5b01113).

Carbon capture and storage—plucking CO2 molecules out of smokestacks and injecting them underground—is necessary to tame climate change, experts say. But the prohibitive cost of the standard capture process, which uses aqueous amines, has scientists investigating less costly methods.

Porous, carbon-based sorbents derived from metal organic frameworks (MOFs) have a high capacity for CO2, but MOFs are costly to synthesize and are made from petrochemicals, an unsustainable resource. So Zhengxiao Guo at University College London and colleagues wondered if they could turn biowastes into a CO2 sorbent. Other researchers have used cones to produce activated carbon for water cleanup, so the team tried cones from a Norway spruce (Picea abies). They carbonized spruce cone scales in a furnace, ground them into particles, and activated them with potassium hydroxide. The KOH treatment helped generate nanosized pores that increase the particles’ surface area. The scientists exposed the sorbent to the same CO2 concentration found in flue gas—15% CO2 by weight—and found that the sorbent had adsorbed 21% CO2 by weight. “This capacity to adsorb CO2 is similar to that of MOFs, but MOFs are not as selective for CO2 and are more expensive to produce than the pinecone adsorbent,” Guo says. X-ray photoelectron spectrometry revealed that nitrogen and calcium naturally present in the cones remains in the nanoporous material, boosting CO2 uptake by introducing active sites on the sorbent surface.

Pine and spruce cones are cheap, renewable and abundant, Guo notes. He figures that enough could be collected from forests to make a significant contribution to CO2 capture on an industrial scale.



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