Engineers Invent Battery That Removes Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide


MIT engineers have developed a battery that charges itself by removing carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gasOpens a new window , from the air.

Not only can it suck out the gas from CO2-rich sources, such as the exhaust gases from a coal-burning power station, but the battery can also remove carbon dioxide from gases with concentrations as low as the air around us.

And the battery can be commercially developed at low cost, according to, which reportedOpens a new window the development this week.

The battery works by exploiting the affinity of a certain type of electrode – made of polyanthraquinone – for carbon dioxide and consists of thin sheets coated with stacks of electrodes. It attracts the gas when charging, and on discharge releases pure CO2 that can be collected.

For those of us who aren’t chemical engineers, frankly it’s a challenge to understand the science. The abstractOpens a new window says that the battery is a “solid-state faradaic electro-swing reactive adsorption system comprising an electrochemical cell that exploits the reductive addition of CO2 to quinonesOpens a new window for carbon capture.”

That said, it’s an exciting breakthrough that has come to life because of the context in which it was developed: the nascent carbon capture and storageOpens a new window industry.

Carbon capture’s ambiguity

Governments and industry have been blowing hot and cold about carbon capture over recent decades. On the one hand, it offers a lifeline to industries using fossil fuels; on the other, it’s been too costly or complicated to implement widely.

Advocates of carbon capture see it as a bridging technology between a fossil-fuel-powered world and the renewable future.

The downside of the main capture technologies, based on either oxy-combustion – burning in oxygen to obtain pure CO2 – or amine scrubbing – removing the CO2 after combustion – has been cost.

It takes significant amounts of expensive equipment and a serious penalty in energy that reduces the overall efficiency of the power plant, steel plant or cement plant.

The power generation industry is rapidly leaping over the bridge, straight to renewables. Yet this new technology could still be useful in rescuing thousands of so-called stranded assets, power plants built in the recent past at risk of being shut prematurely.

For other industries, such as steel smelting, a low-cost solution to sucking up CO2 will be of great interest.

The transport and storage components of carbon capture tech are relatively simple. We’ve obtained gas that had been safely stored in particular geology under the earth for millennia, so putting carbon dioxide back into those same safe geological formations is a practical and proven solution.

However, there are many hurdles to overcome, among them national or regional frameworks, planning, permitting and public perception.

Coke and champagne

There are other uses for carbon dioxide where this technology could find a home. The fizzy drinks industry would welcome a carbon-neutral CO2 supply. Currently, making CO2 means using electricity, and releasing yet more CO2. There are also applications for reducing CO2 in confined spaces, such as submarines.

But it’s the big stuff that counts. Stopping all man-made CO2 emissions shooting into the atmosphere represents a great achievement. Widespread adoption of this technology, coupled with good transport and storage operations, brings the dream into the realm of the possible.

However, the real excitement lies in the possibility of removing the carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere. Just imagine if we could not only reduce CO2 emissions but also actually reverse some of the damage already done.

Thanks to those MIT engineers, we dare to hope.