October 10, 2022
The carbon fiber we know and use today has been around since the late 1970s, but that doesn’t mean the innovation ended there. Applications for carbon fiber started in the high-end aerospace market and expanded into sports equipment, automotive manufacturing, wind turbines, and more general applications.
Since then, newer carbon fibers have been developed that consist of up to 95% carbon and have higher tensile strength (i.e., the resistance of a material under tension) and elasticity compared to earlier versions. And it hasn’t stopped there. What if we said you could take two of the gases causing global warming — carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane — and process them into a solid to use in a variety of applications? Well, that’s exactly what Carbonova is doing.
Carbonova is a “deep-tech” company pursuing the production of high-volume, superior carbon nanofibers to use in massive market applications. They developed a chemical catalytic process to convert carbon dioxide and methane combined with waste heat into high-strength carbon nanofiber, enabling industries to use greenhouse gases as feedstock and turn them into a sustainable and valuable solid commodity.
Dr. Mina Zarabian was pursuing her doctorate degree at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, under supervision of Dr. Pedro Pereira Alamo, world-renowned catalyst expert. She worked with a material that wasn’t living up to its purpose. This material was highly reactive with CO2, making it unable to perform its original function. She and her adviser realized they could catalyze the CO2 and reform it into solid carbon — but they were unsure of the economic benefits.
“After our initial design, we understood that this process is more than just a garbage can for CO2,” says Zarabian. “After detailed microscopy, we understood that we are producing carbon nanaofibers, a material that is known to be 40 times stronger and four times lighter than steel. It has other properties such as electrical conductivity and thermal stability, and creates a new category of material with multiple functionalities.”
Carbonova technology starts with CO2 and methane, two greenhouse gases. According to he company, methane has 30 times more impact on global warming than CO2, and 140 billion cubic meters are flared into the atmosphere annually. Capturing methane into carbon nanofibers opens doors to further recycle greenhouse gases from landfills, biomass, and natural gas reservoirs.
The Carbonova production cycle is designed to be energy efficient to recover generated heat within its own process and use excess heat from other industrial facilities, such as power plants, cement production, or refineries. The process uses a proprietary catalyst surface chemistry, which speeds up the reactions selectively and reduces the energy input required to breakdown CO2 and methane and form carbon nanofiber.
While there are already carbon nanofibers on the market, the process Carbonova developed has a chance to reduce the price and expand the applications of nanofiber, says Zarabian.
The high energy demand and cost of raw materials are the main cost components of current production, and Carbonova says its process solves both. With aspects similar to conventional catalytic processes that perform a continuous flow mode with a high rate of conversion, Carbonova’s process doesn’t have the complications and limitations of other processes such as plasma, laser, and electrochemical.
The Carbonova team regularly simulates the iteration process between design and experimentation. “If we didn’t have simulation, we would have had to experiment everything and that is extremely expensive,” says Zarabian. By simulating different designs, they can refine the designs without having to experiment first. “We use Ansys regularly to design the reactors, assess fluid mechanics, blend materials into composites, and more.” Overall production cost is one of the leading barriers of getting this technology to the larger public.
“Reducing the price of carbon nanofibers enables larger groups of people to have access to advanced technology,” says Zarabian, “which goes back to the origin of engineering: enhancing the quality of life for people and society, whether that be through better cars, sports equipment, clothing, or some other application.”
Zarabian and Pereira cofounded Carbonova in late 2018 after she completed her doctoral degree. With a team of 10 full-time-equivalent employees, founders and executives contribute some of their success to the diversity among the group.
“Our first prototype consisted of hundreds of parts and pieces all had to be assembled according to the P&ID (process and instrumentation diagrams) and go through a detailed HAZOP (hazard and operability study). I was feeling great that I was trained in a highly diverse and inclusive engineering environment,” says Zarabian.
“I think the biggest thing for women to be truly successful in engineering is having that strong support system,” says Zarabian, “whether that’s mentors, teachers, parents, school programs, or something else. We often teach our girls not to do the heavy or dangerous things. But instead, we should be safely encouraging them.”
As raised in “Invisible Women” by Caroline Criado Perez, so much data in our day-to-day life fails to take account women and considers men as the default and woman as atypical. This results in data gap and discrimination built into our system. Women pay tremendous cost for it with their money, time, and sometimes lives.
“When I first started working within the pilot process team in Pedro’s group, I was concerned with the physical demands. Everything must be totally accurate, precise — but some of the things in the lab are heavy and tall for me to reach,” says Zarabian.
Zarabian explains that, historically, most things around us were designed by men for men. Everything from height perspectives to the designs of tools, and even safety measure in our cars were designed to fit men. Sometimes this is just irritating, but it could become life threatening. “We need more woman engineers and scientists to create more scientific data, and give more delicate attention to this invisible group,” Zarabian adds.
Zarabian hopes Carbonova can find and engage more women to join the team and support women entering the engineering field.
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