by Jon Myers
Mark Anderson's Carbon Trifecta attacks three problems in an elegant and inspirational model:
Problem 1: Carbon Dioxide Continues to Accumulate
Fossil-fuel combustion and carbon-dioxide production are inextricably tied to the basic services that drive the global economy. Efforts are underway to bring on new forms of energy production, but even if the growth rate of these efforts is accelerated, carbon-dioxide production will exceed the capacity of the planet to absorb the gas through photosynthesis for at least the next 100 years. If carbon-dioxide emissions to the atmosphere are to be reduced, they must first be captured and then either used (i.e., converted) or sequestered.
Carbon capture technology has advanced markedly, but carbon sequestration - the conventional model for disposing of captured carbon dioxide - is no closer to a scale solution today than it was at the beginning of the century. Thus it is imperative to consider a strategy for conversion of carbon dioxide from a potentially harmful industrial waste to a useful input.
Problem 2: The World Is Short of Materials
The globe is transitioning from one composed primarily of first- and third-world countries to one in which third-world countries are quickly, and across the globe, evolving into second-world countries with aspirations of becoming first-world.
With more than 7 billion people on the planet, this is translating into a huge demand for resources which will be difficult to meet without significant environmental impact, including even more carbon-dioxide production and potentially damaging price inflation.
Problem 3: 3D Printing Needs a "Universal Material"
Manufacturing continues to be based on the Industrial Age concept of "One-size, mass-produced, fits all." Mass production dropped costs considerably when first introduced early in the 20th century; and global trade, which has increased markedly in the last 50 years, has allowed corporations to manipulate the cost of goods produced even more. But the impact of global trade is turning out to have major impacts in terms of energy use (and carbon-dioxide production).
Meanwhile, computing and software have enabled 3D printing technology to create an alternative to mass manufacturing that promises to turn the present global production and trade model on its head. 3D printing offers unprecedented design and performance efficiencies, unique customization capabilities, local production, and businesses, services, and local jobs at delivered price points that will soon be competitive with conventional mass-manufactured, imported goods.
The problem with 3D printing is that the plastics used today to make printed objects are neither complex nor strong enough to compete with conventional manufactured objects. More important, the printer technology itself is limited to a few jets, and almost all objects made from current materials are more complex in number of materials and their characteristics. Ultimately, 3D manufacturing will need a better solution set.
The Carbon Trifecta
An inspirational and world-changing Carbon Trifecta approach would, Mark Anderson envisions, combine solutions for both the re-use of carbon dioxide and the need to support a global advanced economy with the transition from today's now-mature, and likely soon outmoded, mass-manufacturing and global-trade model to one that is driven by computing, software, and 3D printing.
As a launching point, the Carbon Trifecta will require developing a viable methodology for converting carbon dioxide (and / or methane) to a useful material. Several years ago, and for this same purpose, an early-stage advanced materials company developed what Mark Anderson believes is the technology the world needs to make this project viable.
I was a co-founder in 2010 of a private company created to pursue development of its patented process for manufacturing graphene - a potential base input for the Carbon Trifecta initiative - from carbon dioxide. Graphene is a nano-carbon with exceptional properties, including strength. A Nobel Prize was issued in 2011 for groundbreaking work with graphene which identified a number of extraordinary properties.
When graphene is integrated with plastics, a nontrivial exercise today, the performance of plastics can be increased markedly. Leading 3D printing companies acknowledge that 3D printing needs stronger plastics to become a viable mass-market manufacturing technology.
If graphene, made by stripping carbon from carbon dioxide, can be used in large volumes to enable the production of the essential building blocks of a 21st century, global, modern civilization, the vision of the Carbon Trifecta may be realized.
The (patented) process I referred to above for graphene production from carbon dioxide is based on a high-energy reaction between magnesium and carbon dioxide. Chemically, the reaction can be stated as:
CO2 + 2Mg = Cgraphene + 2MgO
This reaction is exothermic. The MgO can be recycled to Mg in a process identical to that used today in the production of Titanium (Ti), in which Mg from a companion Mg production plant is used to facilitate Ti production. MgO is returned to the plant and reduced to Mg for re-use in Ti production. Remarkably, at scale when coupled with Mg production, the economics of graphene production using this process and recycling the MgO are extremely supportive of the Trifecta Initiative vision.
Based on data directly acquired from a major Mg manufacturer, our estimates are that the cost of graphene production using this process may fall well below $5 per kilogram. This is less than one-fifth of the most optimistic estimates for graphene produced by exfoliation of graphite and is compatible with the requirement for mass-market 3D materials production.
Thus, the vision of the Trifecta can be realized by:
- Using carbon dioxide that would otherwise be contributing to global warming and ocean acidification, to:
- address the increasing burden on the world's base materials caused by a transition to an advanced global economy,
- by enabling the remarkable capabilities of computer software and 3D printing to deliver profoundly efficient, beautiful and locally made materials and products - and by introducing graphene into 3D printing as a path for converting this technology into a manufacturing platform capable of delivering complex materials despite a limited number of jets.
The vision described by the Carbon Trifecta may initially seem optimistic; however, we believe that it is attainable, perhaps even inevitable. The question for the U.S. and the world is: Will this profoundly new reality be realized by committed and funded efforts in advance of potential disruptions caused by inattention to the problems identified above, or will the new reality emerge as a consequence of inaction?