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Team launches initiative to develop viable market for waste carbon dioxide

Can we take CO2 out of the air & make money doing it? ASU up for the challenge.
June 6, 2017

ASU partnering with Center for Carbon Removal, other research institutions to find economic opportunities in climate challenge

How do you create a way to take carbon out of the air and make money doing it?

It’s a wicked problemA wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. that will take decades to solve. One member of a team tasked with tackling it compared it to creating agriculture.

The Center for Carbon Removal, in partnership with Arizona State University and several other research institutions, launched an audacious initiative this week with the goal of developing solutions that transform waste carbon dioxide in the air into valuable products and services.

“Solving a problem with a solution that doesn’t exist” is how Julio Friedmann described it. 

“We have urgency around this task,” said Friedmann, a senior fellow at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who serves as the lab’s chief expert in energy technologies and systems. He recently served as principal deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Fossil Energy at the Department of Energy. “I’m seeing windows of opportunity start to close. … We’ve got to get the tons out of the atmosphere, and we’ve got to make money doing it.”

In addition to ASU, universities involved in the initiative include Iowa State and Purdue, both of which have strong agricultural, forestry and economics programs as well as leading engineering, materials science and environmental science programs. With extensive expertise in alternative energy, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — which also participated in the launch event for this initiative — is a partner in the venture as well. 

“We are talking about nothing less than a paradigm shift,” said David Laird, professor of agronomy at Iowa State and an expert in the interactions between soil and biochar, charcoal used as a soil amendment.

Noah Deich, executive director of the Center for Carbon Removal, said that this initiative for a “New Carbon Economy” is urgently needed to “develop new businesses and reinvent the industries that powered the last industrial revolution — like manufacturing, mining, agriculture and forestry — to create a strong, healthy and resilient economy and environment for communities around the globe.” 

Carbon sequestration team meets

The idea for the carbon-economy initiative came from discussions between Noah Deich (pictured Tuesday at the team workshop in Tempe), executive director of the Center for Carbon Removal, and ASU President Michael Crow on ways to rethink the climate challenge as a new economic opportunity. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

 At the launch event, assembled partners agreed to produce a roadmap that will outline the specific steps for translating relevant research into business and policy action. The roadmap will consider design principles for engaging multiple parts of the economy in capturing and concentrating carbon dioxide, ranging from biological approaches such as agriculture and forestry, to engineered approaches such as fuel, chemical and material manufacturing using carbon dioxide as a feedstock.

“There are maybe 100 people in the world who can talk about a carbon economy at the scale we’re talking about,” said Roger Aines, a senior scientist in the Atmospheric, Earth and Energy Division at Lawrence Livermore. “It’s a brand-new thing.”

The idea for the initiative came from discussions between Arizona State University President Michael Crow and Deich on ways to rethink the climate challenge as a new economic opportunity.

“Today there are a number of voices, narratives and uncertainties that challenge us in developing a focused innovation agenda for dealing with the growth of atmospheric carbon dioxide,” said Betsy Cantwell, ASU vice president for research development. “Working together with the Center for Carbon Removal, we will develop a roadmap leading to real, valuable and lasting uses for carbon in the air. We hope to implement the roadmap in a timeframe that will rapidly impact global carbon futures.”

Top photo: Betsy Cantwell, vice president for research development within ASU's Knowledge Enterprise Development, guides the discussion at the New Carbon Economy Consortium on Tuesday. The participants, including public- and private-sector researchers as well as academics, worked toward the end of the workshop to create a vision statement about reversing the carbon paradigm to profitably harvest CO2. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

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ASU, Mexico partnership takes on biotechnology challenges

June 6, 2017

University experts to tackle issues surrounding infectious diseases, gene editing at international symposium

Never in the history of human existence has the opportunity to genetically modify or protect life been as great and accessible to anyone interested in the topic as it is today. 

Cures for human hereditary diseases. Designer babies. Glow-in-the-dark fish. Bioterrorism. Mosquitoes programmed to perish. The opportunities and risks are here now, but lagging are policies, ethical considerations and safety precautions needed to proceed prudently on an international scale.

Arizona State University experts will delve into the issues presented by biotechnology during the annual International Biosafety and Biosecurity Symposium (SIBB) held this year in Morelia, Mexico, and organized by the Asociación Mexicana de Bioseguridad (AMEXBIO), June 7–10.

“We’re enhancing biosafety and biosecurity across international borders,” said Irene Mendoza, associate biosafety officer with ASU’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety, who will be one of the featured speakers at the symposium. “Anything that affects Mexico, like the release of a pathogenic agent, can travel north and affect us.”

Although infectious diseases will be addressed at the symposium, the ASU delegation will lead a technical discussion on gene editing and gene drive technologies, said David Gillum, ASU Environmental Health and Safety associate director and institutional biosafety officer. In simplest terms, it’s about the ability to modify plants or mammals by manipulating their genome — i.e., the chromosomes in each cell of an organism.

“These technologies can drive a change in an entire species from just one modification,” Gillum said. “It can be propagated in all future generations.”

Q&A: ASU professor continues to make waves in biosafety field

David Gillum, ASU Environmental Health and Safety associate director and institutional biosafety officer, said that with the increased use of CRISPR Cas9 gene editing technology in Mexico comes great opportunities for ASU to form a more strategic partnership with AMEXBIO by conducting training sessions, lab site visits, joint research and other symposia. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

 The gene drive of mosquitoes, for example, can be modified so the specific types that carry malaria and Zika will not reproduce and eventually die off. But once their genome is changed and released into the environment, there is no easy way to predict any unintended consequences. 

“That’s what is scary about it,” Gillum said. “There’s no easy undo button.”

The leading gene editing method capable of making such changes is called CRISPR Cas9. This technological process takes advantage of the immune systems of bacteria to delete nucleic acids in living cells and replace them with the desired nucleic acid to change the genome.

“When you’re doing this genome editing, you’re looking for very specific nucleic acids to change,” Gillum said. “Let’s consider that you have sickle cell anemia and you have one gene that is wrong, and you just want to target that one gene. But the genome is huge; there are billions of base pairs. So how do you make sure that you target the one that you’re looking for and not similar sequences somewhere else in your body?”

Unlike past costly and complex genome editing technologies, CRISPR Cas9 is simpler, relatively inexpensive and thus more accessible to people who may not be working in a modern laboratory with established biosafety policies and procedures.   

“There are a lot of citizen labs all over the place where science enthusiasts are getting together in their garages and experimenting,” Mendoza said. “The risk is that although they may just be trying to do something fun, what they create may have unintended consequences.”

woman standing behind podium

Irene Mendoza, associate biosafety officer with ASU’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety, will be one of the featured speakers during the annual International Biosafety and Biosecurity Symposium held this week in Morelia, Mexico, and organized by the Asociación Mexicana de Bioseguridad.

 The use of CRISPR Cas9 has increased in Mexico in the past few years, Gillum said. Experts there recognize the challenge, and that drives such events as the SIBB, which includes participation from other Latin American countries.

“What we want to achieve in SIBB is to continue the academic efforts of diffusing specific knowledge on biosafety and biosecurity, as well as raise awareness among those involved in manipulating biological agents,” said Luis Alberto Ochoa Carrera, AMEXBIO president and founder. “The importance of the work of AMEXBIO is based on the need to create a ‘biosafety culture’ and ‘appropriate communication’ within institutions to mitigate risks associated with experimenting with biological agents.”

ASU contacts AMEXBIO remotely throughout the year, but opportunities exist to engage in person and at a higher level by way of training sessions, site visits, joint research and other symposia to address the wide array of biosafety and biosecurity aspects.

“There is a huge opportunity here for ASU and AMEXBIO in Mexico to partner on these projects,“ Gillum said. “They’re very interested in biodefense. We’re looking into philanthropy to help with funding that will allow us to form a more strategic partnership.”

With funding, ASU biosafety experts like Gillum and his team can work with AMEXBIO to visit labs in Mexico to observe operations and offer suggestions on improving safety and security.

“The interesting aspect of biosafety is that in general it’s based on best management practices,” Gillum said. “Except for very highly pathogenic agents and toxins, everything else is done with a best management practices point of view.  There’s not always a black-and-white way to do certain things.”

Forming strategic links between biosafety and biosecurity experts across the border enables mutual collaboration and training in the region, Ochoa Carrera said.

“AMEXBIO recognizes ASU’s efforts and transcendence in Mexico and within the international biosafety community,” Ochoa Carrera said. “The ASU and AMEXBIO alliance enables the dissemination of knowledge in this field, and it’s also an area of opportunity between Mexico and the United States.” 

Top photo: DNA sequence, courtesy

Jerry Gonzalez

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications