PROVO — A patented process developed in a Utah County basement could be the answer to two critical environmental issues facing the world today.
When Gay Wyn Quance, 63, president and chief executive officer of Provo-based Solid Carbon Products, describes the day her late husband, Dallas Noyes, told her about his work on his prospective breakthrough discovery, her eyes light up and the enthusiasm about the potential impact it could have on the world is palpable.
With the excitement of a person who realizes they have found something that potentially could truly change the world, she explains how he had written a formula that could use carbon dioxide emissions (or greenhouse gases) and turn them into numerous high-value consumer and industrial products, but with no environmental impact and have the added benefit of producing gallons of potable water as a byproduct.
"What Dallas did while (our son) Matt was serving in Iraq was research how to make carbon nanotubes because he wanted to make better armor," she explained. He began his research in 2007. As a chemical and mechanical engineer, Noyes was highly motivated and creative in his approaches to problem-solving, she added.
"He said, 'There's got to be a cheap way to do it because carbon is cheap and it's everywhere!'" she said. "So like all good innovators, we built a lab in the basement of the house" and began to tackle the problem. Four months later, they had produced their first carbon nanotubes.
"What that means is we can fundamentally change material science and we can take a bite out of climate change," she said.
In 2009, the couple founded Solid Carbon Products, still drawing inspiration by their son’s deployment to the Middle East as an Army Ranger and the desire to find a method of producing high-strength carbon to supply better armor to soldiers in the battlefield, Quance said.
Noyce passed away about 1 1/2 years ago after a battle with pancreatic cancer, but Quance — herself an accomplished scientist — continued to lead the company through its research and trial phases. What started off as an effort to better protect their son has evolved into a technology that converts an environmental liability into a potential profit stream.
"We can make nanoscale carbons affordably," she said. "By converting (waste carbon dioxide), we are providing at a very low cost, high-value materials that serve as performance reinforcements in plastics, resins, steel, aluminum (and) rubber."
Their research led to creating a patented catalytic method called the “Noyes Process." The process takes greenhouse gas emissions and turns them into solid carbon materials that can be used in tires, concrete, military armor and various other potential mass production applications.
The company developed a heated, pressurized converter that takes CO2 combined with a reducing gas, such as hydrogen or methane, then turns it into carbon nanofiber, carbon nanotubes and carbon black — which is mostly used as a reinforcing agent in tires and other rubber products.
These carbon materials have properties that result in ultrastrong and lightweight materials for building, manufacturing and armor protection, Quance said. Noting that her son carried 97 pounds of gear around as a soldier, she said the nanocarbon materials the company produces would cut that weight in half and provide enhanced protection.
"In principle, what they are doing makes sense," explained Leo Liu, assistant professor of chemistry at Utah State University. "The idea is pretty simple. But the (issue) is how expensive it is."
Liu noted that converting carbon dioxide is typically quite costly — particularly when using hydrogen in the chemical process, though he conceded that if the process could be done cost-effectively, then the benefits could potentially be great.
Currently, the Provo firm is the only company with the technology to convert CO2 into solid carbon, and it can be done cheaper than current methods and with no environmental footprint, Quance said.
The excess carbon dioxide could be captured from large-scale operations like petrochemical facilities, cement manufacturers or coal mines, for example, she said. What's more, the main byproduct of the process would be water clean enough to use for a variety of purposes, she added.
"Some people call our process a water plant that has carbon as a byproduct," Quance said. "All that we have coming out of our unit is pure water and pure carbon."
When using hydrogen in the CO2 conversion procedure, the process produces three times as much water as carbon.
"It's pure water," she said. "It can be used for industrial or agricultural use. The (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) has given us permission to discharge that water to the surface."
However, Liu described the water as a "minor benefit" because the greater value would come from the carbon-related materials.
"You would be wasting tons of energy to make water," he noted. Though inefficient, Liu conceded the water could be useful and should be used for suitable applications where possible.
"That's a free product from the process," he said. "As long as you can use it, then why not?"
He noted that using a less expensive gas like methane would probably be a more cost-efficient choice.
Quance said the process used to produce the carbon is "net negative," meaning it removes more carbon from the atmosphere than it produces, making it environmentally friendly.
She said the privately held company is in the process of trying to raise $30 million to build a commercial-scale carbon processor that is self-sustaining and profitable. She estimated it would take about two years to get the first device up and running once the project is funded.
Reducing CO2 to carbon is not new in chemistry, explained Liu and Ling Zang, USTAR professor at the University of Utah's Nano Institute of Utah. But how to make the process cost-effective enough for commercialization may be a challenge. However, the possibilities for innovation are encouraging, Ling noted.
Carbon fiber materials remain highly promising for use in aircraft, where light but strong materials are needed, he said. Carbon fibers are three times stronger than aluminum, but are only half of the weight of aluminum, he said.
"It seems to me the company is trying to scale up the manufacturing process with reduced cost," he said. "If (successful) it would be a significant impact to material production."
That is a big if.
Quance said the company has spent the past several years working to perfect its process and acquire the patents and regulatory approvals necessary to make her husband's idea a reality.
"My goal is to get this technology broadly adopted because it can make a difference," she said. "I believe it will (change the world)."
While the idea of using carbon waste to produce improved carbon materials with low environmental impact along with the benefit of producing potable water may seem to be too good to be true, Quance is quick to respond that it did happen — "here in Provo, Utah, in the basement of an engineer's home."
"We would welcome visitors to the lab," she said. "It is true. Come see for yourself."