Green Electrochemical Transformation of Carbon Dioxide (GETCO2)

As controversies continue over the moral hazard of carbon capture, utilization and storage, the Australian Research Council is investing several million dollars in a seven-year effort to decarbonize by manufacturing needed industrial chemicals and materials from captured carbon dioxide
Green Electrochemical Transformation of Carbon Dioxide (GETCO2)
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The CO2 Conversion and Utilization Process
Carbon Dioxide Conversion and Utlization Cycle (www.getCO2.org)

At the last COP28 meeting in Dubai, the use of carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) was the subject of considerable anticipation and concern. The Guardian reported that at least 475 lobbyists for CCUS were accredited to attend the COP28 meeting which was being chaired by a major fossil fuel producing-country. While many environmental and social activists label this approach a "Trojan Horse" that can distract us from emission reductions, there is a growing cadre of scientists, focusing on electrolytic conversion as a pragmatic approach to meeting carbon emission reduction targets.

In the arsenal of post-facto technological fixes, CCUS is also seen by many scientists, including myself, as less intrusive and dangerous than other proposals such as solar geoengineering. Although there is the potential for its misuse to perpetuate fossil fuel consumption, its development alongside rapid renewable energy uptake can help provide a multi-pronged strategy for carbon mitigation. Utilization, rather than just storage, might also provide economic incentives to invest in carbon capture infrastructure. 

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences considers the topic to merit imminent attention and has a committee that is consolidating recommendations related to the topic with an initial report published last year. The challenge of upscaling these technologies is considerable as are the material needs for the electrolyzers that would be needed for the process. Apart from exotic metals for catalysis such as caesium, the membranes used for these technologies contain problematic chemicals such as PFAS for which there are few current alternatives, although some promising technologies are emerging. 

The Australian government has risen to these challenges to fund a Centre of Excellence on the Green Electrochemical Transformation of Carbon Dioxide which will find ways to make these technologies more ecologically and economically efficient.  The center has combined funding over around $35 million dollars at present. As a partner investigator in this centre with a background in industrial ecology and socio-environmental planning, my role will be to help navigate social acceptance of the technologies which are being presented.

Among the more promising routes for upscaling and uptake of this technology could be conversion of the captured carbon dioxide to urea production. Apart from urea's vital role in fertilizer production, there is growing interest in using it as a source of fuel, especially for maritime transport. Australian billionaire Andrew (Twiggy) Forrest in his urea-powered yacht that sailed into Dubai for COP28!  

Another innovative technology that could be developed from electrochemical conversion of carbon dioxide involves the production of acetate molecules.  These could in turn be used to produce food crops without sunlight since the same biochemistry needed for plant material from photosynthesis could be undertaken through acetates.  Dr. Feng Jiao, who is leading this research at Washington University (St. Louis, Missouri, USA), is also a partner investigator for the ARC centre. His work has recently received $5 million in support from the Gates Foundation and the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

Just before the holidays, a major symposium to launch this centre was held in Brisbane with an impressive cadre of research papers.  As the host city for the 2032 Olympics, Brisbane is trying to showcase its greener edge to the world and there was keen interest from the provincial government in supporting the centre's efforts.  Queensland's Deputy Director General for Science, Dr. Mark Jacobs, opened the symposium and noted the opportunity the center provided for making Queensland, and indeed Australia, a technological hub for technologies needed for the Green Transition.  

Frontier research for decarbonization along the lines of this research centre needs to be approached with cautious optimism. There are many challenges ahead for material sourcing of the technologies as well as the upscaling and economic viability of the techniques. However, the circularity of the approach presented has a systems dimension that is more encouraging from an industrial ecology perspective. The next seven years of the centre's work will be watched with anticipation for breakthroughs that may well define the "human age of carbon circularity."

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