Sparks

Climate Fighters

 By Michelle Leslie

Energy demands are expected to increase by 37 percent within the next two decades. An expanding population and humanitarian needs for electrification will place tremendous strains on both grids and governments, which are expected to meet demands while doing so in a green way. But solutions are brewing. Enter the environment superheroes. Disguised in lab coats and found in the halls of research facilities and laboratories, these men and women are tackling some of the biggest challenges our world faces, including how to combat a warming planet…

2015 marked the hottest year on record for the earth, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The sixteen warmest years in the last 125 years, since record keeping began, have all occurred since 1998.

According to the United Nations (UN) this temperature increase has already contributed to significant global declines in harvests, an estimated 40 million tons or 80 billion pounds of food has disappeared thanks to rising temperatures.

Temperatures haven’t been the only thing going up. The rates of CO2 emissions have also skyrocketed in recent decades. According to the International Energy Agency’s 2015 report, the energy sector emitted more carbon dioxide over the last few decades, than in all of its previous history. “Greenhouse-gas emissions from the energy sector represent roughly two-thirds of all anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions,” states the report.

It’s clear we are at a critical juncture.

One team of scientists is fighting climate change by putting carbon dioxide (CO2) to work. Through “artificial photosynthesis”, the team at the Ingenuity Lab in Edmonton, Alberta, is looking at breathing new life into carbon dioxide, creating products from this unwanted greenhouse gas while at the same time reducing emissions rates in the gas fired electricity generation sector.

They have developed an aerofoam which incorporates major elements that are associated with photosynthesis. Replicating the elements of one of the energy cycles that are found in plants in foam form, the aerofoam uses sunlight and carbon dioxide to turn waste into real world solutions.

Selected significant climate anomalies and events in 2015

“We did our initial analysis looking at ethylene glycol,” says Dr. Carlo Montemagno, Director of the Ingenuity Lab at the University of Alberta. “We take the off-gas that would come out of the refining process (the CO2), process it with light and create more ethylene glycol. So instead of releasing it, we create more product.”

The aerofoam acts like the frothy foam or head on top of beer which is formed in part due to the chemical reaction between carbon dioxide and other elements such as alcohol and proteins. Like the frothy foam on a Guinness, the reactions occur within the walls of the bubbles.

Even though their work is still in the early stages, the team has already identified seventy-two products that could be developed from capturing CO2, everything from a high value food additive to a suite of specialty chemicals.

It’s the kind of research that could change the landscape of energy sustainability. Their goals are grand but so is the reward. They are among the researchers in the running for the Carbon X Prize.

A worldwide competition, the X Prize Foundation will award a total of $20 million dollars, with two grand prizes of $7.5 million each, to the winning teams. The goal is to “reimagine CO2,” finding concrete solutions to cutting fossil fuel emissions.

Over the course of four and a half years, teams will develop and test new and beginning-stage technologies in an attempt to convert carbon dioxide from a climate altering gas to a powerful product while at the same time minimizing the environmental impact.

Teams will be judged on their ability to convert the greatest amount of CO2 into useful products such as low-carbon fuels and better construction materials, while doing so in an environmentally and economically sustainable manner. Using minimal amounts of natural resources to capture and convert carbon emissions.

Land & Ocean temperature percentiles Jan-Dec 2015

The Ingenuity Lab’s aerofoam puts minimal strain on water resources, while displacing a large amount of carbon dioxide, recycling would be waste into more energy. “One liter of 100% Rubisco (a large protein molecule found in plant leaves) can transform 266 tons of CO2 into product,” according to Dr. Montemagno.

An added benefit of the system is its flexibility. Because the aerofoam is artificial there are no living systems that have to be maintained, meaning the cycle can be modified as needed without worrying about sustaining a living organism.

The competition, which began last fall, will announce the top 25 teams to advance to the second round in October of this year. While the work out of the Ingenuity Lab is competing to reduce CO2 from gas fired plants, they say their discoveries are adaptable to any form of carbon dioxide source including directly from the atmosphere.

Research that could bring real change to industry. “We are trying to use 20th Century technology in a way that is relevant, in order to provide a path for improved global prosperity,” states Dr. Montemagno.

They may not have a fancy underground cavern or swing on webs, leaping from building to building, but thanks to the work of these innovators and researchers, the future of our planet and everything on it will continue to move in a greener direction.

about the author
Michelle Leslie
Alberta, Toronto and now Ottawa. Meteorologist, Journalist & Munk School Of Global Affairs Fellow.