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Oregon scientist is working to get more planet-warming carbon out of the atmosphere

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

Over the next three years, Oregon State University researchers will be tackling one of the biggest technological challenges of our time — removing climate change-causing carbon from the atmosphere.

“We’re designing technologies, or chemistry in my case, that will capture carbon dioxide just out of ambient air,” said OSU chemist May Nyman. “A lot of the focus so far on capturing CO2 is at the source — at power plants. It’s much more challenging to capture it out of just ambient air because it’s like 50 times less concentrated.”

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

“I’m excited to be able to work on what I consider one of the biggest challenges and most important problems that should involve engineers and chemists and scientists from all disciplines,” Nyman said.

In August, the United Nations climate change panel (IPCC) issued what’s been referred to as a “code red for humanity” — a true climate emergency. The broad scientific review found temperatures over the past decade are nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit higher than in pre-industrial times. Continued warming will further intensify droughts, extreme precipitation events and sea level rise.

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

If efforts fail to reduce carbon emissions, the IPCC has said humanity would require “a greater reliance on techniques that remove CO2 from the air” in order to drop temperatures back down.

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

Just this month, the largest carbon-negative plant in the world opened in Iceland. The “Orca” takes CO2 out of the ambient air and stores it underground. The plant will remove 4,000 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year.

Neither of these are going to be nearly enough to stem the tide of climate change, according to climate-technology experts like Mahmoud Abouelnaga, who’s with the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

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

That’s where additional research and development efforts, like Nyman’s, comes in.

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

“It was just always this kind of weird phenomena that was an annoyance because it made my reactions misbehave,” said Nyman, who first noticed the process back in 2009.

The reaction happens at a 4-to-1 rate — four CO2 molecules taken up by each transition metal ion.

“That’s a very good ratio to have,” Nyman said.

But before the new chemistry is ready for prime time, the chemists will have to figure out how to control the reactions. And even if Nyman’s team is completely successful on this front, she says it will be many years before it’s ready to deploy outside the lab.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting