ASU research center aims for negative carbon emissions

February 17, 2015

What if we had the ability to not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere? If we could, where would we store it, and how could it be used in a positive way?

A new research center at Arizona State University, led by faculty in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, aims to show that capturing excess carbon dioxide from air is a viable strategy to stabilize and reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It also is a valuable resource that could be recycled to help power the production of synthetic fuels, as well as provide an essential food source for plants in greenhouses. engineering professor Klaus Lackner Download Full Image

This air capture technology developed by researchers at the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions transcends the limitations of traditional carbon reduction approaches by actually scrubbing carbon dioxide from the air.

“There is a limit to the amount of carbon dioxide we can have in the atmosphere; if the limit is surpassed, life becomes intolerable,” said Klaus Lackner, the center’s director and a new professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“Stabilizing our carbon emissions at net-zero is the only way to avoid crossing the secure threshold. But with global emissions rising, this effort is increasingly expensive and difficult,” Lackner said.

Achieving net-zero emissions requires new technologies, such as air capture, that can manage the carbon balance in the atmosphere by capturing and permanently storing carbon dioxide, resulting in negative carbon emissions.

The center’s novel air capture technology features a plastic resin that captures carbon dioxide when dry, and releases it when moist.

This discovery emerged from collaborative work between Lackner and the center’s executive director Allen Wright while they were at Columbia University and Global Research Technologies, the first privately held air capture company.

Paving the way for carbon recycling

Capturing carbon dioxide for disposal is just part of the agenda for the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions. The center’s researchers also are looking at ways to use what is captured to expand a sustainable economy through efforts like carbon recycling.

“Before we start capturing and storing carbon dioxide on the scale required for negative emissions, we need to prove that air capture is economically efficient,” said Christophe Jospe, the center’s chief strategist.

“Bootstrapping our technology to commercial endeavors where carbon dioxide is a valuable resource is a logical way to promote critical developments in this field,” said Jospe.

Greenhouses and algae-based biofuels which require less concentrated streams of carbon dioxide could enhance their yield using the carbon dioxide collected by the center’s air capture units – making them natural first candidates for efforts to optimize this technology for commercial use. The center also aims to supply carbon dioxide to manufacturers of synthetic fuels, a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels.

Teaming up for sustainable solutions

Lackner, Wright and Jospe moved to ASU from the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at Columbia University to take advantage of the climate and solar energy resources.

“Our technology performs best in dry climates and can be powered by renewable energy. The desert, with abundant solar power and a dry climate, is ideal for us to expand our work from the lab to an outside operating environment,” Wright said.

The Center for Negative Carbon Emissions plans to find its place within the larger sustainable solutions framework at ASU, alongside endeavors such as LightWorks and PlanetWorks, and the Global Institute of Sustainability.

“Technology advances do not happen in a vacuum, and there is world-class innovation in many facets of sustainability here at ASU,” Lackner said. “There is a natural connection between our work and research being done at ASU that can lead to excellent collaborations.”

“We are fortunate to have attracted Lackner and his team to ASU. I feel confident that other research efforts will gain synergy from the work and intellectual capabilities that they bring to the university,” said Edd Gibson, director of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment.

The center has already attracted students through outreach with the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative (known as FURI), and the faculty members said they look forward to providing more student opportunities for research.

“We offer a holistic systems approach that allows students to get involved in diverse ways, including with the design and construction of various apparatuses, computational simulation, experimental work, automation of processes and political and economic analyses of the availability of this technology,” Jospe said.

Making a case for air capture

Along with pursuing advances in negative carbon emissions, the center’s researchers are eager to increase public awareness about the challenges surrounding the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the achievable solutions negative carbon emissions can provide.

“We are enthusiastic about engaging in the public debate, showing the consequences that different decisions will have and providing opportunities for decision-makers to shape desirable outcomes,” Jospe said.

For the center’s researchers, the urgency of the challenge is clear. “The longer we wait, the more carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere and the greater the risk of a catastrophic event becomes,” Lackner said.

“Air capture provides a way to clean up after ourselves while making an array of sustainable and carbon management solutions possible,” said Lackner. “But first, we must clearly demonstrate in the public domain that we can and should take up the case for air capture technology.”

To stay up to date with the latest advancements of the center, join the CNCE mailing list.

Written by Rosie Gochnour

Sharon Keeler

New ASU center mimics nature to create cutting-edge technology

February 18, 2015

Launch symposium March 3 to feature Janine Benyus, ASU President Michael Crow

Arizona State University students Michelle Jack, Edmund Jolley, Jenna Stevens, Mark Small and Rubing Qiang are designing a smarter wheelchair cushion that gauges a user’s pressure points to increase comfort and prevent pressure sores. man and woman discuss ideas Download Full Image

As part of the InnovationSpace education and research space, they came up with several ideas for products that incorporate principles of nature into their design, including recycling and selling old cushions at affordable prices, reusing waste as raw material; and building a better wheel for a wheelchair using a honeycomb structure to reduce materials, and consequently cost, while still maintaining strength.

Their mentor and adviser Prasad Boradkar is a professor of industrial design in The Design School in ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. Every year, Boradkar and his colleague Adelheid Fischer work with a new batch of students who develop innovative, sustainable products with positive social impact using principles of biomimicry – a field that explores materials, processes and functions of nature to solve design and engineering problems.

InnovationSpace, co-directed by Boradkar and Fischer, is a joint venture among the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, W. P. Carey School of Business and School of Sustainability.

Exploring a new way of doing things

To ensure students are at the cutting-edge of education, sustainability and innovation, Fischer, Boradkar and an interdisciplinary team of ASU engineering, design, sustainability and business researchers first incorporated biomimicry into InnovationSpace projects in 2008. 

Through Fischer and the group's efforts, ASU became a Biomimicry Affiliate University through The Biomimicry Institute, a nonprofit founded by Janine Benyus along with Bryony Schwan and Dayna Baumeister, a biomimicry pioneer, conservationist and professor of practice in the School of Life Sciences, within ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Benyus explored the subject in depth and popularized it in her 1997 book, "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature."

“Biomimicry thinking is a skill set for 21st century careers,” said Boradkar, who is also a senior sustainability scholar at ASU's Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. “We want our students to develop socially conscious products and think about how these products interact with their environment. From human-centered design, which has been a focus area longer than it should have, we should be thinking about life-centered design that incorporates our interaction with all organisms.”

Benyus’ first visit to ASU in 2008, as part of the Biomimicry Institute-ASU partnership led by Fischer, included a talk at the Memorial Union on the Tempe campus and furthered the relationship between The Biomimicry Institute and ASU.

Leveling up

Biomimicry studies have been a part of ASU’s research portfolio for years. Whether it is developing bio-inspired materials for modern use or finding ways to convert sunlight into energy by replicating photosynthesis in the lab, ASU researchers have been at the leading edge of the field.

During the spring commencement ceremony in 2013, ASU presented Benyus with an honorary doctorate for her groundbreaking work in the field of biomimicry. In a conversation prior to the ceremony, ASU President Michael M. Crow and Benyus discussed scaling up related initiatives at the university.

The result of that discussion, the Biomimicry Center at ASU, is set to launch on March 3. It is a joint collaboration between ASU and Biomimicry 3.8, the consulting and training firm co-founded by Benyus and Baumeister. The center will coordinate research and curriculum initiatives amongst campus institutions and the fast-growing global network of companies and consultants practicing biomimicry.

In addition to coordinating broad sustainability initiatives, the Biomimicry Center also will offer the first-ever Master of Science in Biomimicry and the first-ever Graduate Certificate in Biomimicry. These online programs are accredited versions of professional training programs developed by Biomimicry 3.8 since 2008.

Both the master’s degree and certificate programs have begun accepting applicants through ASU Online, and development of an on-campus master’s program is planned.

“The primary mission of the Biomimicry Center is to enhance academia’s ability to address a variety of sustainability challenges using strategies inspired by nature,” said Baumeister, co-director of the center and a professor of practice in the School of Life Sciences.

“We would like every ASU student to experience biomimicry principles as part of their education with the help of the center,” added Boradkar, who will co-direct the center with Baumeister. “We would also like to develop a mechanism through which our biomimicry research can come to life in the form of products and services.”

“Biomimicry allows us to put a face on sustainability and fall in love with it” said Fischer, who will serve as assistant director of the center. Boradkar said the study of biomimicry is exactly the kind of field that can thrive at a place like ASU.

“Innovative ideas take root and prosper at ASU. Biomimicry is a philosophy as well as methodology, and the Biomimicry Center will advance ASU’s mission to improve quality of life, sustainable development and economic competitiveness of our communities.”

The Biomimicry Center at ASU is supported by the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, School of Sustainability, W. P. Carey School of Business, School of Life Sciences and Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, as well as the Office of Knowledge and Enterprise Development and the Provost’s Office.

The center is scheduled to officially launch March 3 with an interactive symposium on ASU’s Tempe campus. The event will feature TED-style talks, hands-on activities, artistic performances and a discussion between Janine Benyus and ASU President Michael Crow about the role biomimicry can play in generating innovative solutions to sustainability challenges.

Director of Strategic Marketing and Communications, ASU Local