Carbon makes the world go round

Ignore the miserable greens – carbon is a boon to humanity.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Science & Tech

In my view, industrialisation has added to the greenhouse gases of the world and thus to global warming (1). Moreover, CO2 is the most significant manmade greenhouse gas. So we should move to a low-carbon or zero-carbon world, right?

Not so fast. This simplistic, black-and-white view of carbon is far too prevalent. About 18 per cent of the human body is carbon. Trees and plants, which form a sink for CO2 and turn it, through photosynthesis, into oxygen, are made of carbon. Coal- and gas-fired power stations that emit CO2 are not ‘dirty’, and nor is it right, when referring to CO2 emissions, to contrast ‘dirty’ coal with ‘cleaner’ gas. It’s time to rescue carbon from its pariah status.

There is widespread hatred for the stuff. In America, the National Resources Defense Council wants to ‘stamp out’ humanity’s carbon footprint, even though no two calculators of one’s personal footprint have been known to agree. Not content with inveighing against ‘dirty’ energy, Canadian radical Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything, uses the phrase ‘carbon-spewing’ five times – about roads, container ships, jumbo jets, holidays and China’s Pearl River Delta. Away from the vomit, environmentalists want zero-carbon homes, cities and resorts. And there are the websites: here, for example, or here.

It’s all very one-sided. As the Italian chemist Primo Levi reflected in Auschwitz, carbon is ‘the only element that can bind itself in long stable chains without a great expense of energy, and for life on Earth (the only one we know so far) precisely long chains are required. Therefore carbon is the key element of living substance.’ The chemistry of carbon (2) gives it a unique versatility, not just in the artificial world, but also, and above all, in the animal, vegetable and – speak it loud! – human kingdoms. Not for nothing was the EU’s recent Rosetta space mission to one of our solar system’s comets dedicated to – and successful at – finding carbon, the source of life on Earth.

Carbon apps in materials, electronics, solar power – and materials again

The applications of carbon in the world of materials alone show how wonderful it is. As it happens, Rosetta’s lander module, Philae, had a frame, antenna and landing legs made of carbon fibre. Back on Earth, America’s Food and Drug Administration last year approved our old carbon-based friend, plastics, for cranial implants. Connecticut’s Oxford Performance Materials uses polyetherketoneketone, which is a high-performance thermoplastic, for the job.

In electronics, one kind of carbon – carbon nanotubes, or CNTs – is now working with another, one-carbon-molecule-thick graphene. The result is applications that promise to be impressive once they move out of the lab. Carefully aligned single-walled CNTs, when mixed with nitrogen-doped sheets of reduced graphene oxide, can make fibres that can be woven into clothing to act as long-life micro-supercapacitors, so powering wearable medical devices with as much clout as conventional lithium-ion batteries. Again in flexible electronics, strong, fast-working CNT circuits can now be doped by another carbon-based material, DMBI, so they can handle fluctuations in power just as well as rigid silicon chips, and can beat bendy but specially formulated plastic electronics on strength and performance.

CNTs show the myriad roles that carbon can perform. When bonded to graphene, they could make powerful solar cells. There is also the extraordinary news that, at modest temperatures and pressures and with no hairy chemicals, pushing controlled, alternating voltage pulses across single-walled networks of CNTs can enlarge their diameter, give them multiple walls, or turn them into multi-layered nanoribbons of graphene: good for high-conductivity electronics, as well as for reinforcing composites in transport and sports equipment.

Apart from its physics and chemistry, the biology bound up with carbon confirms its technological prowess. From wood and fibre crops, the EU’s Bio-based Industries Consortium (BIC) aims to develop pulped cellulose – (C6H10O5)n – into textiles, films and thermoplastics. It wants to improve the fermentation of crops to make biosurfactants for cleaning, and specialty carbohydrates with applications cheaper than those that already exist in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Other BIC projects may create, from new techniques of processing forest products, materials for packaging, papers, fibres and glues, as well as components in construction and cars. Through similar strategies with beet pulp, potato pulp and brewers’ spent grain, the BIC also hopes for new paints and coatings, too (3).

Making use of CO2

The miracles of carbon, whether in nanotubes, layers of graphene, or long-chain molecules, give the lie to environmentalism’s absolutist disgust for it. But what verdict should be made about CO2, the gas? Once again, it isn’t an unalloyed evil.

In the US, three companies – Skyonic, Joule and Novomer – are worth tracking over the next few years. Skyonic combines salt, water and electricity with the emissions from power plants to produce baking soda, hydrochloric acid and bleach. Joule? Deploying genetically engineered bacterial catalysts, it uses modular, scalable converter ponds to turn concentrated industrial waste CO2, non-potable water and sunlight directly into different fuels, including a species of diesel which it claims is free of sulphur and aromatic chemicals. Joule believes this process is superior to that which generates fuels from algae. Last, Novomer has developed metallic catalysts, such as beta-diiminate zinc acetate, that can quickly polymerise CO2 by bonding it, in pressurised reactors that operate with low temperatures and energy inputs, to small organic molecules called epoxides. The outcome: relatively inexpensive and biodegradable plastics (polycarbonates, polyurethanes) that are up to 50 per cent composed of CO2.

Much more tricky than these kinds of processes is the retrieval of CO2 from the atmosphere, rather than from industry. Such a process has both advocates and detractors. But we shouldn’t yet rush to dismiss ‘air capture’ as eternally difficult and uneconomical or, to paraphrase Klein, as a falsely comforting distraction from the need to change our lifestyles. Global warming has still left us plenty of years in which to make the technology a viable proposition (4).

Toward a new carbon infrastructure

Richard Branson’s Virgin Earth Challenge is a competition for air capturers of CO2 that offers just $25million in prize money. Yet as Klein notes, Branson is on record as saying: ‘Carbon is the enemy. Let’s attack it in any possible way we can, or many people will die just like in any war.’ Clearly, hyperbole and alarmism characterise even the can-do camp among those who make global warming their Alpha and their Omega.

The industrial-scale recycling of CO2, and the harnessing of carbon in all branches of industry, exposes how a messianic – indeed, Manichean – hostility to carbon is a one-sided fraud. In the third paragraph of Capital, Karl Marx observed that to discover the various uses of things ‘is the work of history’. On the whole, then, the world is still in a prehistoric period in relation to carbon. It has yet fully to realise the potential of this most remarkable of atoms.

We will never enter a New Carbon Economy – that phrase, too, would be hyperbolic, just like the Internet Economy, the Biotech Century and all the rest. But the world could really do with a new carbon infrastructure (5), in which the properties of the element are used on a truly ambitious scale.

Some greens like ‘organic’ farming; yet that irrational cause does not prevent even them from castigating carbon in all its other forms. It’s time to get things straight. Even CO2 need not always be a problem. So let’s hear it for carbon!

James Woudhuysen is editor of Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation. Read his blog here.

Joe Kaplinsky helped in the preparation of this article.


(1) Energise! A future for energy innovation, by James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky, Beautiful Books, 2009

(2) Although organic, carbon-based chemistry technically excludes the chemistry of pure carbon, in its different allotropes, as well as the chemistry of CO2, organic compounds form a larger, more variegated domain than the domain of inorganic chemistry. This, too, is testimony to the power of carbon.

(3) As with British Chancellor George Osborne’s budget for research into graphene, which amounts to a princely £60million, the monies that the European Commission has promised to make available for the BIC are laughable – just €50million for its current ‘work plan’ of 16 projects, and less than €1 billion over the whole period 2014-2020.

(4) Even if humanity made the decision to allow no new net CO2 to enter the earth’s atmosphere, carbon would still be around, not only as living matter and in the form of engineering materials and components, but as a transport fuel – at least until such time as the energy density of the battery on an electric car rises 100-fold, from 250 kiloJoules per kilo (measured by weight), or 360 kJ/litre (measured by volume), to surpass that offered by petrol: 44,400 kJ/kg or 34,800 kJ/litre. Whether we drill for hydrocarbons or make them ourselves, they will still be indispensable. Indeed, one of the merits of air capture is that, unlike carbon capture and storage around power plants, it can do something about the CO2 emissions around transport, which is the source of the fastest-growing emissions today.

(5) James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky, Energise! A Future for Energy Innovation, Beautiful Books, 2009, chapter 5. This chapter, which is devoted to the new carbon infrastructure, also cites top American scientists George M Whitesides and George W Crabtree, and their view that little research has been done on the chemistry of CO2 for decades.

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Topics Science & Tech


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