A team led by Washington State University has received a $3.6 million Department of Energy grant to tackle what can arguably be called one of humanity’s biggest challenges: how to capture carbon dioxide out of the air to mitigate climate change.

The team is conducting fundamental research in using ionic liquids, or liquid salts, to grab the carbon dioxide out of the air and catalytic processes to convert it into valuable chemicals. Led by Hongfei Lin, professor in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, the highly competitive, three‑year grant includes researchers from four national laboratories and the University of California, Riverside.

With the increasing threat of climate change and to prevent its most dangerous impacts, researchers say that, in addition to reducing manmade carbon emissions, people are going to have to figure out how to remove carbon dioxide directly from the air.

More than half of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions come from non-point source pollution from the gas and oil burned to power homes and cars. But pulling the carbon dioxide out of the air is monumentally difficult because in spite of the gas’ big climate effect, there is actually only a miniscule amount in the air – about 417 parts per million of the air particles, according to NASA.

“A lot of people think it’s not practical, but we have an incredible team,” Lin said. “It’s not going to be solved quickly, but these are world-class scientists who are working to understand the fundamental science. I have very high expectations for this project and for this collaboration.”

Closeup of Hongfei Lin
Hongfei Lin

Lin and the team have proposed to use ionic liquids for direct air capture of carbon dioxide and then use catalytic processes to convert the carbon dioxide with ethane into useful compounds. Ionic liquids are considered good candidates for carbon capture because they are good at attracting and then releasing pure carbon dioxide. By using ethane instead of hydrogen as the reductant, they hope to reduce the costs of converting the carbon dioxide, minimize energy consumption, and better use existing infrastructure. Ethane is an abundant and inexpensive co-product in natural gas processing facilities.

The researchers have proposed developing a catalytic process to convert the carbon dioxide and ethane to polyketones, a material that has many applications, including for car components, engine and fuel component materials, electrical and electronic components, and packaging materials.

An important key to tackling the challenge of carbon dioxide emissions is to think about the carbon dioxide as a raw material instead of a waste product, Lin said. The idea is to convert the carbon dioxide to valuable chemicals that can be sold at a profit, which could then be used to subsidize the cost of carbon storage.

“Our vision is that carbon dioxide in the air can be mitigated and even monetized,” he said. “As chemical engineers, we use our professional skills in the area of catalysis. Through the integration of novel processes, we can transform raw materials to useful end products. We aim to solve these societal challenges using our capabilities.”

The work is funded by DOE’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences and includes researchers from Pacific Northwest, Oak Ridge, Lawrence Berkeley, and Sandia National Laboratories, and University of California, Riverside.