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The question is legitimate since nanomaterials are so small that even a single hair is around 1000 times thicker. Nanomaterials have a size of less than 100 nanometers. Before the discovery of carbon nanomaterials, the most well-known forms of carbon were diamond and graphite. Carbon nanostructures were discovered in 1991 by the physicist Sumio Iijima. Due to their unique structural dimensions, carbon nanomaterials have attracted serious interest in diverse fieldsfrom everyday applications to futuristic technologies. But what exactly are these materials? 

Before the discovery of carbon nanomaterials, the most well-known forms of carbon were diamond and graphite.

Before the discovery of carbon nanomaterials, the most well-known forms of carbon were diamond and graphite

 

As we know life on Earth is based on carbon and its all around us. Carbon element bond with other elements forms plants, organisms and even human bodies. Pure form of carbon is used in our vehicles, batteries, roads, electronics, air & water filters and many more. Even further carbon is present in interstellar space dust. Elemental carbon is very flexible when it comes to crystal structures. That’s why carbon has several allotropes (variants) including diamond, graphite, graphene, and fullerene. Carbon nanoparticles are classified based on their structure. These include diamond nanostructures, fullerenes nanostructures, graphite and graphene nanostructures, carbon nanotubes, and carbon nanofibers. (1) To understand these fascinating molecules, let’s dive into the world of carbon nanomaterials. 

 

Diamond nanostructures 

Nanodiamonds are small diamond particles with a size of under 1 micrometre. (2) Macro-sized diamond films have been widely applied as electrodes for electrochemical and electroanalytical applications. Diamond nanoelectrodes are a promising tool to investigate diamond electrochemistry at the nanoscale as well. (3)   

Nanodiamonds are of a size below 1 micrometre with high potential for electronics, medicine, and other industries

Nanodiamonds are of a size below 1 micrometre with high potential for electronics, medicine, and other industries

 

Fullerenes  

The Fullerenes family forms a partially closed or completely closed structure with rings of five or seven atoms. Fullerenes have a structure of hollow cages of sixty or more carbon atoms. The carbon in these structures has a pentagonal and hexagonal arrangement that looks like a hollow ball. These molecules can take various shapes and sizes. Fullerenes got their name after the C60 structure called Buckminsterfullerene or informally buckyball because of it’s shape. These materials are mainly useful in electronics and materials science. 

Carbon 60 nanostructure called Buckminsterfullerene

Carbon 60 nanostructure called Buckminsterfullerene

 

Graphite 

Graphite has a layered crystalline structure with individual sheets of hexagon clusters, which results in its unique characteristics. It is a material so soft that it leads a pencil or can become a lubricant as well. The hexagonal layers of graphite are extremely strong, however, graphite forms single atom sheets with only weak forces holding them together, the sheets can easily slide over each other, which is the reason graphite is so soft. 

The excellent conductivity, high-temperature resistance and chemical stability of this material makes graphite extremely important in electrodes and fuel cells. Nanoscale graphite is expected to be a common material in the future, but in order to use it in these applications it needs to meet the requirements of nanotechnology. (4) The usual production of nanographite nowadays happens by splitting of natural graphite.

Side view of the crystalline structure of hexagonally arranged carbon atoms forming flat honeycomb graphite layers

Side view of the crystalline structure of hexagonally arranged carbon atoms forming flat honeycomb graphite layers

 

Graphite became a critical raw material while the demand for it is increasing rapidly. The current production methods come with huge environmental pollution and overexploitation of natural resources through mining. The production of sustainable graphite from direct air capture (DAC) or industrial exhaust CO2 offers a strong alternative and it also reduces the dependency on foreign imports.   

Graphite is a critical raw material and the current production methods come with a huge environmental cost

Graphite is a critical raw material in EU and US and the current production methods come with a huge environmental cost

 

Graphene 

Diamond is not the strongest material known to mankind. Graphene is a single atom thick layer of carbon that outperforms the strongest material known until now. It is the “wonder material” of the 21st century that got discovered in 2004 and earned a Nobel Prize in Physics to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov already in 2010. Graphene has unchallenged strength and electrical conductivity.

Graphene is also the basic structural element of fullerenes and carbon nanotubes. A sheet of graphene consists of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice that’s only a single atom thick. A hexagon pattern is naturally a very energy-efficient and strong shape, frequently used in aerospace applications or where high strength and low weight is a priority. Graphene’s hexagonal structure and strong bonds make graphene an extremely strong material.

3D view of a graphene lattice molecular nanotechnology structure

3D view of a graphene lattice molecular nanotechnology structure

 

Carbon Nanotubes 

Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are catalysts for the new technological revolution. They have the same hexagonal structure as other carbon materials, but the layers connect with themselves to form a tube. This structure gives carbon nanotubes incredible strength – about 100 times greater than steel, but they are vastly lighter, conductive, and biocompatible as well. 

Besides many other applications, one use of carbon nanotubes is for enhancing battery properties, such as a higher charge rate, longer lifecycle, and higher energy density, while increasing battery safety. Carbon nanotubes are used as an additive material because they can increase mechanical strength, electrical & thermal conductivity, fracture toughness, and electromagnetic shielding effect. They also have antistatic & anticorrosion properties. Carbon nanotubes also ended up in products like the winning Tour de France bike in 2005, but  they are also used in paints & coatings, filtration technologies, electronics, and in many other fields. (5) They are also promising materials in the field of space technologies including futuristic ideas such as the space elevator. 

Single-walled zigzag carbon nanotubes molecular structure, perspective view

Single-walled zigzag carbon nanotubes molecular structure, perspective view

 

The darkest black paints are also made from carbon nanotubes. Creating up to 10 times darker coating than other black materials by absorbing close to 100% of the visible light spectrum. This way scientists can see even further in space and achieve new things that haven’t yet been done. That’s why a thin film of carbon nanotubes is also useful in solar cells as light and a conductive layer.  

 

Carbon nanofibers 

Carbon nanofibers (CNFs) are nanostructures with graphene layers wrapped into cylinders. Forming a less perfect shape compared to carbon nanotubes. However CNFs are notable for their rare combination of properties.  

They have excellent electromagnetic and thermal shielding and also enhanced mechanical properties. This makes them a popular additive to coatings or plastics. Moreover CNFs are also reinforcing concrete due to their mechanical properties while reducing the amount of concrete needed.

Microscopic view of nanofibers

Microscopic view of nanofibers

 

Carbon nanospheres 

Among all these shapes and sizes, carbon nanospheres (CNS) are a novel nanostructure that has only recently started to attract significant research activity and show potential applications from optoelectronics to medicines.(6) 

In CNS structure, the graphite sheets are like waving flakes that follow the curvature of the sphere. Contrary to the fullerene C60, the unclosed graphitic particles create many open edges at the surface that are enhancing surface reactions for catalytic functions. (7) 

Last but not least CNS increases battery capacity and they are also appropriate for black pigments and coatings for marine applications.

Microscopic view of nanospheres

Microscopic view of nanospheres

 

After this brief review of different types of carbon nanoparticles it is important to keep in mind that the current production and mining processes of these raw materials are toxic and environmentally harmful. We provide sustainable alternatives to these highly valuable and critical carbon materials that play an important role in many fields of our present and future. Making these highly valuable raw materials carbon-negative and environmentally safe.

 

References 

Barhoum, Ahmed & Shalan, Ahmed & El-Hout, Soliman & Ali, Gomaa & Abdelbasir, S. & Samy, Esraa & Ibrahim, Ahmed & Pal, Kaushik. (2019). A broad Family of Carbon Nanomaterials: Classification, Properties, Synthesis, and Emerging Applications. 10.1007/978-3-319-42789-8_59-1.

Chung, P.-H.; Perevedentseva, E.; Cheng, C.-L. (2007). “The particle size-dependent photoluminescence of nanodiamonds”. Surface Science. 601 (18): 3866–3870. Bibcode:2007SurSc.601.3866C. doi:10.1016/j.susc.2007.04.150.

Yang, Nianjun & Jiang, Xin. (2016). Diamond Nanostructures and Nanoparticles: Electrochemical Properties and Applications. 10.1007/978-3-319-28782-9_9.

Zhang, Yiyi & Liu, Yi & Wu, & Liao,. (2019). Experiment Research on Micro-/Nano Processing Technology of Graphite as Basic MEMS Material. Applied Sciences. 9. 3103. 10.3390/app9153103.

Carbon Nanotubes: Present and Future Commercial Applications, Michael F. L. De Volder et al., Science 339, 535 (2013)

Karna, P., Ghimire, M., Mishra, S. and Karna, S. (2017) Synthesis and Characterization of Carbon Nanospheres. Open Access Library Journal, 4, 1-7.

Carbon nanospheres: synthesis, physicochemical properties and applications, Antonio Nieto-Márquez,*a   Rubí Romero,b   Amaya Romeroa  and  José Luis Valverdea , (2011) Journal of Materials Chemistry, Issue 6 

 

The rapidly increasing carbon emissions are the main cause of climate change and global warming. Annual global emissions of CO2 amount up to 40 billion tonnes, out of which a significant  share comes from the transport sector and from fossil fuel combustion. The threat is undeniable and the adoption of electric vehicles appears to be vital at this point. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) report the number of electric vehicles must increase to 60% by 2030 and the sale of diesel and gasoline cars would need to end by 2035 to meet the emission reduction targets.

It must be addressed, however, that electric cars may reduce emissions while already out in the streets, but the lithium-ion batteries on which they predominantly run, pose a unique sustainability challenge. Electric car batteries require the mining of metals, such as cobalt, nickel and lithium that can have harmful effects to the environment.  Furthermore, approximately 1/4th of the batteries contain graphite and carbon nanomaterials that are either  from fossil resources or synthesized via energy rich chemical vapor deposition method. The rapidly increasing demand for these materials and an insufficient production capacity to satisfy the market’s needs lead to the importation of raw materials from countries like China, India, Brazil, etc. Europe alone is importing 500 000 tons of graphite per year.

But wherever there is a demand, there must be supply and more and more sustainable raw material providers are setting their targets towards the EV battery industry. Graphite and carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are valuable battery components and they can be sustainable too.

One of the solutions for the green innovative approach is based on molten salt carbon capture and the process of electrolysis – the technology which has been known since the 1960s but has seen very little work done on it until very recently. This technology enables synthesizing sustainable carbon nanomaterials from CO2 that have high specific surface area, superior conductivity and mechanical properties thus also showing good performance rates in batteries and supercapacitors.

We have gathered top 10 battery manufacturers who could help accelerate the transition to a zero carbon future and offer some suggestions for leveling up their battery properties and performance rates via sustainable carbon nanomaterials.

 

1.Italvolt

Italvolt is building a gigafactory in Europe with a capacity of 45 GWh by 2024, which will be able to produce batteries for 500 thousand electric vehicles per year. The battery startup has a recycling patented process named “RecycLiCo™” that recycles cathode materials like cobalt, nickel, manganese and aluminum. Recycling is definitely a greener approach, but is implemented only to the cathode materials. As far as the anode materials, a partial replacement with 1-5% of sustainable carbon nanotubes (CNTs) could make a huge difference. Recycled materials for the cathode and sustainable materials for the anode could be the magic combination for the green sustainable batteries Italvolt is aiming for!

Italvolt's electric battery gigafactory in Europe.

(Credits: Italvolt)

 

2.Beyonder

Sustainability is the main focus for the Norwegian battery manufacturer who turns forestry residue, namely sawdust from pine and spruce, into super-activated carbon. UP Catalyst and Beyonder share the same vision for green batteries containing sustainable carbon. Carbon nanomaterials could be an ideal addition to the Beyonder production as they are capable of increasing the current battery longevity up to 5 times (more than 100,000 cycles) and speeding up the charging rate up to 10 times. The two philosophies combined could create a truly revolutionary product!

 

3.InoBat

Where battery innovation meets sustainability one can find InoBat. The Slovakian company is producing lithium-ion batteries based on nickel rich chemistry with key features such as being lightweight and small size. The company prioritizes the use of recycled and renewable materials hence carbon nanomaterials and graphite produced out of CO2 could be great additives to their production. InoBat’s technology-led approach aims to boost battery’s energy density to a goal of 330Wh/kg and 1,000Wh/I by the end of 2023. Carbon nanotubes are very lightweight with a density about one quarter than that of steel while having tensile strength approximately 100 times greater. Therefore, further decrease in the weight of their batteries can make Inobat the leader in lightweight custom-made batteries with the market’s top electrical conductivity. 

 

4.Tesla,Inc.

Tesla could not be missing from this list for obvious reasons. Tesla is at the frontier of next-generation mobility leading the global EVs sales and holding an important share of the energy storage market. Their latest announcement to use lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries in their standard-range cars shook things up in the market. LFP batteries have clear benefits compared to cobalt-nickel-aluminum ones. In particular they are safer, have larger capacity and are eco-efficient. Their only disadvantage is lower range because the LFP cells are less energy-dense.This could be overcome by the use of graphite-like carbon coating containing 5-10% carbon nanotubes, which can also improve the electrochemical capacity of the battery.

The use of sustainable graphite can also be applied to lithium-ion batteries. Think of their most known model, Tesla S, which broke record sales worldwide. Tesla model S battery range (575 km) can be doubled with a partial replacement of 1-5% conventional graphite to UP Catalyst’s sustainable one. Magic, huh?

Tesla electric vehicle charging

 

5.NorthVolt AB

The Swedish battery manufacturer NorthVolt is a true advocate for renewable energy and clean battery production.The company’s goal is to manufacture 50% of the batteries with recycled material and to reduce their carbon footprint up to 80% by 2030. Northvolt’s mission to deliver the world’s greenest lithium-ion battery with a minimal CO2 footprint is perfectly aligned with that of UP Catalyst. The Estonian startup produces 1kg of sustainable carbon nanomaterial out of 3,7 kg-s of CO2. When adding Northvolt’s commitment to power cell production with renewable energy the overall battery production line could even become carbon negative. 

 

6.CATL Co.

CATL, the Chinese battery systems manufacturing giant, has recently announced their new battery based on sodium-ion technology. According to CATL, sodium-ion cells feature an energy density of 160Wh/kg, currently the highest in the world for these kinds of batteries. Sodium-ion batteries are notoriously known for their low-energy density and limited charging cycles. Enriching cathodes of such batteries with hard carbon nanomaterials can increase the lifecycle and density of the battery up to several times.

 

7.Britishvolt

Leading the way in the UK with a worldwide reputation, BritishVolt is fully committed to creating environmentally friendly, low carbon lithium-ion batteries that push the planet ahead on the quest to net-zero target. Their 30GWh Gigaplant in Northumberland is located next to an abundance of renewable energy which helps to lead the UK to low carbon battery production. Part of their green approach is recycling the batteries in order to reuse the raw materials. To further reduce their carbon footprint already during the production process it would be highly recommended to use sustainable carbon nanomaterials and graphite. The main advantage of the technology is that it does not increase the cost of production for the manufacturers – UP Catalyst can provide a product with better price, sustainably.

 

8.FREYR

It seems like Norway is at the cutting edge of innovative and sustainable battery technology, making FREYR the third Norwegian manufacturer in our list. FREYR produces safe, environmentally friendly lithium-ion based cells for various energy applications while minimizing CO2 emissions and energy consumption in the production chain. Their battery design features the use of graphite and cathode active materials (CAMs), which are mined in northern Norway. 

To become a truly sustainable battery manufacturer, the company should consider using sustainably produced graphite. UP Catalyst has demonstrated that their technology enables synthesizing carbon nanomaterials that have high specific surface area, superior electrical conductivity and mechanical properties, thus also good performance in batteries, supercapacitors and fuel cells. 

Freyer green battery manufacturer

(Credits: Freyr)

 

9.Morrow batteries AS

Another distinguished  Norwegian  battery company, Morrow, plans to establish a giga-scale battery cell manufacturing site and produce lithium manganese nickel oxide (LMNO) batteries for automotive, maritime and grid industries. By substituting cobalt with a cheaper manganese, they plan to achieve cost effectiveness and sustainability. Manganese oxide, which is used in LMNO batteries, however, lacks good electrical conductivity and is brittle. These drawbacks can be eliminated with the use of CNTs. MnO2 electrodes can be coated with CNTs to improve the strength of such electrodes and improve the electrode’s ability to conduct current.

 

10.Custom Cells

Last but definitely not the least, Custom Cells produce battery cells and energy storage prototypes for demanding applications. When lithium-ion battery production seems like a challenge, they have the answer. As their name declares, their products are custom made to their client’s special needs. The unique properties of their batteries have been appreciated also by Porsche, one of their most known clients. Apart from the electric vehicle industry, they provide energy storage solutions for medical applications. In the latter, small lightweight batteries with high longevity and energy density are crucial, making sustainable carbon nanotubes (CNTs) a smart additive. When CNTs are used in the anode, it is proven that the lithium-ion capacities exceed 1000 mA h g−1, which is a major improvement compared to conventional ones.  It takes only a partial replacement 1-5% to see major improvements in the battery’s characteristics. 

 

In the challenging times of climate crisis both battery manufacturers and raw material suppliers need to commit to sustainable practices, considering both the environment and their customers. Being sustainable is not a trend; It should be the baseline of every business. It should be their common duty to provide innovative solutions that will lead to a greener future, as sustainable development is our only way to avoid drastic climate changes.

The European Space Agency (ESA) and National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics (NICPB) in Estonia have signed a partnership agreement for investigating the electrochemical splitting of COfor carbon and oxygen production in Mars conditions. The agreement comes at an exciting time where the race for human exploration of Mars has been so far split between the world leading superpowers. Estonia, with its 1.3 million population is also getting into the Mars game now.

 

Estonian scientists led by the Energy Technologies Laboratory of the NICPB have proposed a study for developing a reactor technology where CO2 is electrochemically split into solid carbon and gaseous oxygen, which are then separated and stored. The technology used for this process is molten salt carbon capture and electrochemical transformation (MSCC-ET) where the CO2 molecule is broken up via a carbonate salt electrolyte. On Mars, it could be a solution to two problems: energy storage and oxygen production. Even more since the conditions are perfect as the atmosphere of Mars consists over 95% of carbon dioxide with only about 0.1% oxygen.

 

ESA and NICPB have agreed to put their respective competence and  facilities at each other’s disposal for the purpose of testing the viability of MSCC-ET for usage on Mars and developing a reactor that could work as both an energy storage and oxygen generation device. „It will provide a great opportunity for Estonian scientists to contribute to European space research and interact with space industry experts to take the next step in inhabitating the Red Planet“, said the Head of Estonian Space Office Madis Võõras.

 

In order to actively support the research ESA has agreed to co-fund a Post-Doc Study of Dr Sander Ratso, who will be carrying out his research over the course of 24 months in the National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics in Tallinn, and the European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. „It is clear that oxygen generation and energy storage are completely new use cases for this proposed method and there are many unknowns that we are going to face“, mentioned Ratso. „However, we might be on the verge of a great scientific discovery for the humankind,“ he continued.

 

Dr Ratso has defended his PhD thesis on carbon catalysts for fuel cell cathodes. He has received multiple honours and scholarships for his outstanding work in studying electrochemical systems. Ratso is also the co-founder of an Estonian based startup UPCatalyst, which produces sustainable carbon nanomaterials from CO2and waste biomass for a vast range of applications ranging from biomedicine to battery technologies.

Estonian team UP Catalyst is about to boost their novel way of oxygen production on Mars. With technical support, funding and hands on mentoring from field specific experts, the startup is on a path to helping mankind take this next step.

NASA has been preparing for human exploration of Mars for decades, and the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (better known as MOXIE) has already shown some promising attempts to produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere for propellant and for breathing. MOXIE works by separating oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules, which are made up of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. A waste product, carbon monoxide, is emitted into the Martian atmosphere.

Now, Estonian based startup UP Catalyst will be part of the journey in paving the way for safe travel to the Red Planet, with the support of the European Space Agency. UP Catalyst’s innovative carbon capture method works in the same way and even at the same temperature. The difference is, however, that UP Catalyst is reprocessing the carbon dioxide into valuable carbon nanomaterials. The produced nanomaterials could be used in various fields of space industry, e.g. in battery and ultracapacitor technologies, conductive and strengthening coatings, polymer formulations, water filters etc. Mars has a thin atmosphere with a surface pressure less than a hundredth of the Earth’s. Furthermore, it is 96% carbon dioxide with only about 0.1% oxygen. For comparison, Earth’s atmosphere is 21% oxygen. UP Catalyst has developed a novel method to use both byproducts in a sustainable way.

UP Catalyst CEO, Dr Gary Urb explained that “we still have a lot of work to do as we move toward our goal of one day seeing humans on Mars. The first steps in our production development have shown promising signs in becoming a strong contender both in the space industry and nanotechnology sector.”

“UP Catalyst has a very strong scientific and technical background which translates into high potential to support human missions on Mars“ said ESA BIC project manager Sven Lilla. “ESA BIC funding is just a small indication of the ESA support for UP Catalyst to connect them with the right mentors and field specific experts to start scaling up their production method”, Lilla continued.

ESA BIC Estonia is part of the Europe-wide ESA BIC network, offering access to ESA expertise, knowledge and data, laboratory and testing facilities of the participating universities and hands-on business development support from the Incubation Centre teams.

The whole UP Catalyst team has commented that they are looking forward to being part of a project of such scale – helping human Mars exploration – and is confident that such a mission will happen in the coming decades. NASA aims to land astronauts on Mars in the 2030s, however, it has some competition in the race to get there. Both Boeing and SpaceX hope to get to the Red Planet first, with SpaceX setting the lofty goal of arriving in 2026.