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Northwestern University’s Sweet Solution to Carbon Capture and Climate Change

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In a groundbreaking study, researchers at Northwestern University have discovered a new way to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into a more valuable product, potentially providing a solution to the global climate change crisis. The researchers used a catalyst made from table sugar to turn CO2 into carbon monoxide (CO), a key building block for the production of a variety of useful chemicals.

The study, published in the May 3 issue of the journal Science, could pave the way for more efficient carbon capture technologies. “Even if we stopped emitting CO2 now, our atmosphere would still have a surplus of CO2 as a result of industrial activities in past centuries,” said Milad Khoshooei of Northwestern, who co-led the study. “There is no single solution to this problem. We need to reduce CO2 emissions and find new ways to decrease the concentration of CO2 already present in the atmosphere. We should exploit all possible solutions.”

The Northwestern research team also leads the Midwest’s carbon capture center, MINDAC. The initiative aims to develop several solutions to address climate change, including direct air capture (DAC) technologies. These technologies can reduce persistent CO2 by literally pulling it out of the air. CO2 can then be safely and permanently stored deep underground or recycled into valuable products, contributing to a circular carbon economy.

“The Illinois Basin has a number of deep rock formations with properties favorable for CO2 storage,” said Brad Sageman, Weinberg Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences and co-director of the Trienens Institute. “And the success of CO2 sequestration has already been demonstrated in the basin.”

The Midwest, home to industries and heavily trafficked roads, is a large CO2 emitter in the United States. The region is also subject to extreme variations in temperature and precipitation due to climate change. However, it is uniquely positioned as an ideal location for a DAC hub.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that Illinois has the most nuclear power of any state in the nation, making nuclear energy an attractive and reliable zero-carbon energy source to power the capture process. Nuclear power plants also produce abundant waste heat, which can be integrated into capture plants to further reduce energy costs.

“By incorporating carbon dioxide captured from the air into building materials or plastics you can sequester carbon,” said Ted Sargent, the Lynn Hopton Davis and Greg Davis Professor of Chemistry in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “Alternatively, processes can convert captured carbon dioxide into fuels that can replace energy from fossil fuels. When processes that capture carbon dioxide use nuclear energy, the potential for carbon neutral or carbon negative products and fuels emerges, which is very exciting.”

The MINDAC feasibility study will develop a model to integrate carbon capture technologies, large-scale production, CO2 utilization, transport and geological sequestration of CO2. Northwestern has collaborated with a number of leading industry and research partners including Argonne National Laboratory, Constellation, Siemens, 3M, Energy Capital Ventures, LanzaTech, RepAir and Avnos.

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