Oregon scientist strives to extract more carbon from warming atmosphere


Over the next three years, researchers at Oregon State University will tackle one of the biggest technological challenges of our time: removing the carbon responsible for climate change from the atmosphere.

“We are designing technologies, or chemistry in my case, that will capture carbon dioxide just from the ambient air,” said May Nyman, OSU chemist. “Until now, the focus has been on capturing CO2 at the source, in power plants. It is much more difficult to capture it only in the ambient air, because it is 50 times less concentrated.

The university will receive $ 1.6 million from the US Department of Energy to develop new methods of carbon capture.

An illustration of a method of capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which is being pursued at Oregon State University.

Oregon State University

“I am delighted to be able to work on what I see as one of the biggest challenges and most important issues that should involve engineers, chemists and scientists from all disciplines,” said Nyman.

In August, the United Nations Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released what is called a “red code for humanity” – a real climate emergency. The extensive scientific review found that temperatures over the past decade were nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit higher than in pre-industrial times. Further warming will further intensify droughts, extreme rainfall events and sea level rise.

A large majority of warming is the result of human activities, and most of it is caused by the release of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels like coal, gasoline, and gas. natural.

If efforts fail to reduce carbon emissions, the IPCC said humanity would need “greater reliance on techniques that remove CO2 from the air” in order to lower temperatures.

In the Pacific Northwest, the most visible form of large-scale carbon capture comes from the natural world. The forests of Oregon and Washington absorb seven million tonnes of carbon per year as they grow.

This month, the world’s largest carbon-negative factory opened in Iceland. The “Orca” extracts CO2 from the ambient air and stores it underground. The plant will remove 4,000 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere each year.

Neither will be enough to stem the tide of climate change, according to climate technology experts like Mahmoud Abouelnaga, who works for the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

“So there are different research projects going on how to increase the efficiency of the process and make it less energy consuming,” he said. “Cost is a big barrier for this technology. “

This is where additional research and development efforts, like that of Nyman, come in.

She and her team focus on a group of elements found at the center of the periodic table, known as transition metals and which have been shown to react with carbon in the air, turning it into a solid. .

“It was always this kind of weird phenomenon that was bothersome because it made my reactions misbehave,” said Nyman, who has been studying this process since 2009.

The reaction occurs at a rate of 4 to 1, with four molecules of CO2 absorbed by each transition metal ion.

“It’s a really good ratio to have,” said Nyman.

But before the new chemistry is ready for prime time, chemists will need to figure out how to control reactions. And while Nyman’s team is fully successful on that front, she says it will be many years before they’re ready to be deployed outside of the lab.

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