New materials proposed for capturing carbon dioxide to fight climate change

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Case Western Reserve University scientist leads national, multi-institutional collaboration that aims to reduce CO2 from earth’s atmosphere

A scientist at Case Western Reserve will lead a national team of researchers to test their novel approach for “direct air capture” (DAC), a fast-growing technology that combats climate change by removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.

Burcu Gurkan

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awarded Burcu Gurkan, Nord Distinguished Associate Professor in Chemical Engineering at the Case School of Engineering, and her team a three-year, $3.6 million grant to investigate a new technology using novel materials to remove CO2 from ambient air.

The award was among nine new DOE-funded projects announced in August totaling $24 million to advance cost-effective DAC technologies.

Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas driving climate change because it absorbs and radiates heat. Increases in greenhouse gases caused by human activities have trapping additional heat and raising Earth’s average temperature.

The Case Western Reserve-led team proposes to use a chemical process that involves capturing CO2 onto hybrid materials using certain liquids contained in polymeric films.

Gurkan and her team also plan to use microwave energy for the process, a first in the industry to capture and release CO2 with minimum energy.

Current CO2-removal processes are energy intensive, Gurkan said. For example, the conventional approach for capturing CO2 from fossil-fuel-burning power plants uses sorbents, materials used to adsorb liquids or gases, to capture the CO2, but that process requires burning additional fossil fuels-which then produces more CO2 to be captured.

“This process is depends on continued fossil-fuel-burning, which defies the purpose of decarbonizing,” Gurkan said. “Our approach is unique because no one has looked into applying microwave energy to our proposed materials to regenerate for continued use to capture CO2.”

Schematics of the CO2 capture and release of the novel materials with encapsulated structured solvents that Gurkan and her team are developing for DAC.

(Illustration by Emily Durst, Cleveland Institute of Art).

Global growth of DAC

The global race to lower CO2 in the atmosphere is mainly focused on reducing carbon emissions from power plants and automobiles powered by fossil fuels. However, the United States government and others are increasingly also looking to solutions to remove existing carbon from the air.

Several commercial DAC projects are already underway or nearly complete, notably in Iceland, California and British Columbia. But questions remain about whether those technologies will be scalable enough to be profitable, experts have said.

Further, DAC has not yet proven to be reliable in a wide range of temperature, humidity and pressure, all of which can change by location, Gurkan said.

Gurkan said the team is also developing “novel and benign solvents”-deep eutectic solvents (DESs) and nanoparticle organic hybrid materials (NOHMs)-which can capture CO2 for energy-efficient regeneration and perform at various temperature, humidity and pressure.

That could make their DAC a more easily distributed and modular technology-meaning it should work anywhere, anytime and under any conditions, Gurkan said.

“If all we need is electricity,” she said, “and let’s say that electricity is generated from a renewable energy like solar, then we can do it in Cleveland, Ohio, or Shanghai, China, equally as easily.”

Collaborative effort

The work will be done by a team with diverse research interests and expertise, said Gurkan, whose previous NASA-funded research was also focused on removing carbon to provide astronauts breathable air during space travel.

The other researchers are:

  • Ah-Hyung (Alissa) Park, the Lenfest Earth Institute Professor of Climate Change and chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering and Department of Chemical Engineering at Columbia University. She is also director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy.
  • Rachel Getman, the Murdoch Family Endowed Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Clemson University;
  • Emily Pentzer, associate professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Chemistry at Texas A&M University;
  • and Michelle Kidder, a senior research and development scientist in the Energy Science and Technology Directorate at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

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