Startup scales up carbon nanotube membranes to make carbon-zero fuels for less than fossil fuels

March 9, 2018, Mattershift

Mattershift, an NYC-based startup with alumni from MIT and Yale has achieved a breakthrough in making carbon nanotube (CNT) membranes at large scale. The startup is developing the technology's ability to combine and separate individual molecules to make gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel from CO2 removed from the air.

Tests confirming that Mattershift's large-scale CNT membranes match the characteristics and performance of small prototype CNT membranes previously reported on in the scientific literature were published today in Science Advances. The paper was the result of a collaboration between Mattershift and researchers in the labs of Dr. Benny Freeman at The University of Texas at Austin and Dr. Jeffrey McCutcheon at the University of Connecticut.

For 20 years, researchers have shown that CNT membranes offer tremendous promise for a wide variety of uses including the low-cost production of ethanol fuel, precision drug delivery, low-energy desalination of seawater, purification of pharmaceutical compounds, and high-performance catalysis for the production of fuels. The difficulty and high cost of making CNT membranes has confined them to university laboratories and has been frequently cited as the limiting factor in their widespread use. Mattershift's ability to mass-produce CNT membranes unleashes the potential of this technology.

"Achieving large scale production of membranes is a breakthrough in the field," said Dr. Freeman, Professor of Chemical Engineering at UT Austin. "It's a huge challenge to take novel materials like these and produce them at a commercial level, so we're really excited to see what Mattershift has done here. There's such a large, unexplored potential for carbon nanotubes in molecular separations, and this technology is just scratching the surface of what's possible."

The company has already booked its first sales and will ship products later this year for use in a seawater desalination process that uses the least amount of energy ever demonstrated at pilot scale.

"We're excited to work with Mattershift because its membranes are uniquely tailored to allow salts to pass through our system while retaining our draw solute," said John Webley, CEO of Trevi Systems in Petaluma, California. "We already demonstrated the world's lowest energy desal process in our pilot plant in the UAE last year, and Mattershift's membranes are going to allow us to push the energy consumption even lower."

Three significant advances made this breakthrough possible. First, there has been a 100-fold reduction in the cost of carbon nanotubes in the last 10 years, with a corresponding increase in their quality. Second, is the growing understanding of how matter behaves in nano-confined environments like the interior of sub-nm CNTs, in which molecules move single file at high rates and act differently than they do in bulk fluids. And third, has been the increase in funding for tough tech startups, which enabled Mattershift to spend 5 years of intense R&D developing its technology.

"This technology gives us a level of control over the material world that we've never had before," said Mattershift Founder and CEO, Dr. Rob McGinnis. "We can choose which molecules can pass through our membranes and what happens to them when they do. For example, right now we're working to remove CO2 from the air and turn it into fuels. This has already been done using conventional technology, but it's been too expensive to be practical. Using our tech, I think we'll be able to produce carbon-zero gasoline, diesel, and jet fuels that are cheaper than fossil fuels."

Using CNT membranes to produce fuels is actually just one example of a technology predicted by Nobel Prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman in the 1950s, known as Molecular Factories. Molecular Factories work by combining processes such as catalysis, separation, purification, and molecular-scale manipulation by nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS) to make things from molecular building blocks. Each nanotube acts as a conveyor belt that performs functions on molecules as they pass through, single file, analogous to how factories function at the macro scale.

"It should be possible to combine different types of our CNT membranes in a machine that does what molecular factories have long been predicted to do: to make anything we need from basic ," said McGinnis. "I mean, we're talking about printing matter from the air. Imagine having one of these devices with you on Mars. You could print food, fuels, building materials, and medicines from the atmosphere and soil or recycled parts without having to transport them from Earth."

Explore further: New membranes help reduce CO2 emission

More information: "Large-scale polymeric carbon nanotube membranes with sub–1.27-nm pores" Science Advances (2018). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700938 , http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/3/e1700938

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9 comments

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Parsec
not rated yet Mar 10, 2018
Unless these gents have figured out how to convert one atom type into another, its going to be damn tough to print a titanium sheet out of air. Or anything else containing atom types not present in the air.

So that last bit is pure nonsense. The rest seems plausible if one postulates you have enough energy to put into the process.
xponen
5 / 5 (1) Mar 10, 2018
I think it make sense that CO2 can be used as building material, it had all the material needed for making plastic, I think plastic is strong enough for making a modest home.
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (2) Mar 10, 2018
There it is.

This is the disruptive technology for fossil fuels. This will eventually place a machine in the hands of the individual that can make all the gasoline your car can burn, from air, without the need for dangerous storage, and at a cost more than competitive with buying it from fossil fuel companies. For now, companies can overcompete with fossil fuel drilling and put the drillers out of business, while fixing global warming at the same time.

This will also change world politics and finance in ways we cannot currently imagine; the money for Middle East terrorism will dry up, just as a single example.

In ten years we'll start sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere and stop drilling for oil and mining coal. This will put a fix for global warming in everyone's hands.

These guys are gonna make a mint, and it's not some fly-by-night free energy confidence trick. They have materials scientists who have been working on this for a decade.
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (1) Mar 10, 2018
Good links and technical information are available at: https://www.matte...chnology

I'm gonna check if they're hiring.

Folks might wanna see if you can get stock as soon as they IPO. I don't expect it will be long.
Da Schneib
not rated yet Mar 10, 2018
The paper in Science Advances is open access; just follow the DOI link in this article. They've already got the patents filed so their technology is protected. Apparently Science Advances thinks this is sufficiently important to make it open access. I completely agree.

They're making these membranes the size of a standard sheet of paper (8" x11", 20cm x 28cm). After reading the paper it's clear that they've tested this at room temperature, at about 200 psig (1400 kPa) in the liquid tests, and a bit above room temperature (35C) and lower pressure (100 psig, or 700 kPa) in the gaseous tests.

The liquid phase separates solutes from water (think desalination) and can be repeatedly cleaned with chlorine bleach (yes really). The membranes therefore seem quite robust in terms of reaction to oxidizing and other contaminants.

I suggest reading the paper.
Da Schneib
not rated yet Mar 10, 2018
This was worth opening an Arrogant Bastard Ale for. Just finishing it up. :D

I'm still absorbing the implications of this. For example, in food production. For example, in pharmaceuticals. Most organic chemistry is accessible with this. One of the big questions here is how physically durable, in terms of heat and pressure, these materials are. I am thinking about using ceramics instead of polymers for the substrate, too, though that might be a long way off.

An article on Forbes published today describes this as near to Star Trek matter replicators: https://www.forbe...ershift/ I suggest reading this too.
MR166
not rated yet Mar 11, 2018
Thanks for your insights on this Da.
BendBob
not rated yet Mar 12, 2018
Will there be a time when CO2 in the air becomes hard to get into your fuel printer? I mean, rare. The levels have dropped and can't print fuel easily? Will we need to buy CO2 to print fuel?
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (1) Mar 12, 2018
Not for a long time, @BendBob. Like a hundred years or so. Keep in mind as well that this is a modular technology; you make the holes and nanotubes the right size, then you put a gate on the outside end of the nanotube. So if we need to use something else, it's just a matter of engineering; the science is all done. People have been making designs for the gates for fifteen or twenty years without knowing it; there's a huge library of them. The things here are they have control over the size of the CNTs, and it's durable. That makes the task much easier to engineer.

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