The insightful environmentalist says pollution is just a resource out of place. Now a Rice University professor wants to put that idea to use. The University has created a Green Carbon Center it says to bring the benefits offered by oil, gas, coal, wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and other energy sources together in a way that will ensure the world’s energy future as well as a means to recycle carbon dioxide into useful products.
Whether or not one believes in anthropogenic climate change, the fact is humans are throwing away a potentially valuable resource with every ton of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, said Rice’s James Tour. He is the Chemistry Chair, a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, and professor of computer science. Far from being a villain in the global warming debate, carbon will be a boon if the world can learn to use it well, he said.
“The key is to turn carbon dioxide into a useful material so it’s no longer waste,” he said. “We want the center to partner with energy companies — including oil, natural gas and coal — to make carbon a profitable resource.” Tour details several strategies in a paper with coauthors Vicki Colvin, Rice’s Pitzer-Schlumberger Professor of Chemistry and of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and Rice research scientist Carter Kittrell.
Tour says the paper presents a view of Rice’s new center: a think tank for ideas about the future of energy with a focus on green carbon and the technological know-how to back it up. As part of Rice’s Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, the Green Carbon Center will draw upon the combined knowledge of the university’s nanotechnology experts, for whom the development of clean and plentiful energy is a priority.
“Eighty-five percent of our country’s energy comes from fossil fuels, and Houston is the world capital of the industry that makes, produces, and transports those fuels,” says Colvin. “So we are in a unique position as the leading university in Texas to transform that industry, to develop it in a green way, to make it sustainable and teach people that just because it’s carbon doesn’t mean it has an environmental consequence. It can in fact help us transition to a renewable energy economy of the future.”
“The whole idea,” says Tour, “is to lower the carbon dioxide footprint and show it is not necessary to get rid of anybody’s energy source.
“We want to say to oil, gas, and coal companies that even as we go to renewable forms of energy, we need you. We need oil for all of our manufacturable products — plastics and fibers and building materials,” he said. “We need coal for syngas and for the manufacture of chemical compounds. And we need natural gas to provide energy at least into the next century, as well as for the production of hydrogen.”
The Rice researchers wrote in Nature Materials that the rapid expansion of solar and wind energy and the promise of a hydrogen-based energy economy do not negate the continuing, long-term need for carbon-based energy, particularly because so many American jobs depend on the digging, drilling, and distribution of fossil fuels.
They suggested carbon dioxide separated from hydrogen through steam methane reformation could either be repurposed immediately as a basic feedstock for chemicals or sequestered temporarily in tapped-out oil wells, which would hold vast amounts. Compressed and liquefied carbon could even replace another precious resource — water — to enhance oil and gas recovery.
“It costs a lot to capture carbon dioxide and pump it underground, and that can negate the advantages of sequestration,” says Tour. “But solar and wind power could replace coal-fired boilers to compress and transport carbon dioxide.” The authors also noted a potential market for carbon dioxide in dry cleaning, where it could replace harmful chlorocarbons, and as a refrigerant to replace materials more than 1,000 times as potent as greenhouse gases.
Read the Nature Materials article at http://www.nature.com/nmat/journal/v9/n11/full/nmat2887.html
Visit the Green Carbon Center at http://greencarbon.rice.edu
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