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    Can a sponge-like ‘nanomaterial’ eat up greenhouse gas? Cal State LA will find out
    • October 12, 2023

    What if tiny sponge-like things known as “nanomaterials” were designed to fight climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide, the pollution that makes up most of the Earth’s greenhouse gas emissions?

    California State University, Los Angeles has received a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to research climate change with the goal of developing smart, porous nanomaterials that act as sponges and can be reused thousands of times to soak up carbon dioxide.

    Cal State LA is teaming up with famed Iowa-based Ames National Research to “capture” — or absorb — carbon dioxide and pollution in thousands and thousands of tiny pores that scientists will create on the surfaces of pieces of nanomaterial the size of a tablespoon.

    The magic behind this science, says Yangyang Liu, a chemistry professor at Cal State Los Angeles, is that a piece of sponge-like material — small enough to hold in your hand — would have a massive surface area due to its vast number of pores. If stretched out flat, the nanomaterial would equal the size of a football field.

    The carbon dioxide that is “captured” in the nanomaterial could be injected underground to prevent the pollutant from returning to Earth’s atmosphere, or the captured pollutants could be transformed into fuels.

    “These materials we designed can remove CO2 from the air to combat climate change,” explains Liu. “Just a tablespoon of the material we make in the lab can have the total surface areas of a football field, and all that surface can be used to store CO2. … The captured CO2 can then be injected underground. Or we can also use chemistry to convert the CO2 into fuels or other useful chemicals, such as methanol or ethanol.”

    In what the researchers say would be a first in science, the Cal State/Ames team is using sunlight to release the captured carbon dioxide from the “sponges” so the costly nanomaterial can be used to absorb pollution, time and again.

    Yangyang Liu, Ph.D. , Associate Professor of Chemistry at the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at California State University, Los Angeles. (Photo by J. Emilio Flores/Cal State LA)

    In the past, scientists worked with nanomaterials that had limited reuse. Liu wants to devise nanomaterials that can be reused repeatedly — thousands and thousands of times — to keep the cost of creating them to a minimum.

    “That’s a major advantage of using these types of materials,” said the professor in an August interview. “Their high surface areas make them excellent candidates for CO2 capture.”

    The technical name for the sponge-y materials is “metal-organic framework” or MOFs.

    The problem with using carbon capture to tackle climate change is the cost, according to Liu. “The regeneration of materials used for CO2 capture usually requires high temperatures,” she said. “Therefore, the traditional way of capturing CO2 on a large scale may not be economically sustainable or financially feasible.”

    So to overcome the costs, “we proposed using sunlight for materials regeneration,” she said.

    Sunlight is everywhere and can be used to regenerate the needed materials at zero cost, she explains.

    “(Hopefully), we don’t have to synthesize new materials for every ‘capture cycle,’ because material synthesis could be costly, especially given the scale of CO2 capture,” said Liu. “We don’t want to just make these materials and use them once. We want to reuse them many times.”

    They hope to launch the effort in the fall semester and estimate that it will take about three years to develop the smart, porous, sponge-like materials to capture pollution.

    Cal State LA’s $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy aims to provide more research and training opportunities in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields while addressing important energy and climate challenges.

    Long Qi, a representative of Ames National Laboratory, says that Cal State LA is not traditionally recognized as a research university, so this project aims to provide more opportunities for students to train in the field of clean-energy transformation and carbon capture.

    Qi said that having more students familiar with that goal, and having the special expertise, will help the country get to carbon zero by 2050.

    “We will be able to provide our expertise … and carry out the research … with no difference from doing research at UCLA or Cal State LA,” Qi said in an Aug. 25 interview.

    The award is part of $37 million in grants from the DOE’s Funding for Accelerated, Inclusive Research initiative aimed to build research capacity, infrastructure and expertise at institutions historically underrepresented in the DOE’s Office of Science portfolio.

    Cal State LA’s collaboration with the Ames National Laboratory, a DOE national laboratory operated by Iowa State University, is formally titled, “Designing Photoresponsive Nanosponges for Efficient and Reversible Capture and Release of Carbon Dioxide.”

    Cal State LA undergraduate and graduate students will have opportunities to participate in the research at their university as well as in internships at Ames National Laboratory.

    Qi notes that, “While I think the project is exciting, this is one of a few special grants especially for non-research universities to do fundamental research. In the past, the country just gives money to research professors. This is the first time they want to give money specifically for people in more education-based universities.”

    Qi said Cal State LA students will visit the Ames National Laboratory for research work and he will come to Los Angeles to oversee the progress in their labs.

    “(This will) develop a larger program beyond the current scope of the work for carbon capture,” he said.

    And over the next three years, Liu predicts that she and her students will create nanomaterial the size of a tablespoon with so many pores on it surfaces that, if stretched out, will indeed equal the area of a football field.

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    ​ Orange County Register