U of O researchers closing in on better, cheaper carbon capture technology

A team of researchers at the University of Ottawa is closing in on a new carbon capture technology capable of absorbing the industrial byproduct before it hits the atmosphere. 

Method could lower cost of removing CO2 before it enters atmosphere, scientists say

Tom Woo is leading the team of researchers at the University of Ottawa. (Haneen Al-Hassoun/CBC)

A team of researchers at the University of Ottawa is closing in on a new carbon capture technology capable of absorbing the industrial byproduct before it hits the atmosphere. 

Chemistry professor Tom Woo led the research into materials that can more effectively capture CO2 from the exhaust emitted by flues or pipes at power plants. 

According to Woo, one-third of the world's greenhouse gas emissions come from those industrial sources.

"So if we can pull the CO2 from these large point sources, then we can significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions," Woo said. 

The current carbon capture method involves injecting gases into water containing special material that attaches itself to both CO2 and water molecules. (CBC)

A better way

Carbon capture technology is nothing new, but the current methods are inefficient and expensive, he said. 

Currently, some power plants bubble exhaust through water containing special materials that attach themselves to the harmful gases, but the water then has to be boiled off to isolate the CO2.

Woo's research team looked for different materials that would bind themselves to CO2, but not the water. They developed an algorithm which generated more than 330,000 hypothetical materials.

"We simulated how they interacted with gases and determined what makes a material good for capturing CO2," Woo said.

For manufacturers across Canada, it costs more to capture CO2 than to pay carbon tax.

They then worked with scientists at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland to identify potential materials that contain the same atomic features and synthesize them. The Swiss researchers successfully produced and tested the new materials using wet flue gases.

Woo and his team also collaborated with researchers at the University of California Berkeley in the U.S., Heriot-Watt University in Scotland and the Universidad de Granada in Spain to assess the new materials.

Laying the groundwork

Because paying the carbon tax is currently less expensive than the cost of capturing CO2 — about $100 to remove one tonne of CO2 versus B.C.'s carbon tax of $40 per tonne, Canada's highest — most manufacturers aren't bothering to isolate and remove carbon dioxide, Woo said.

"So we really need to bring it down," he said. 

According to the simulated model created by Woo's research team, the cost of removing CO2 could potentially be lowered to less than $40 per tonne, creating an incentive for manufacturers.

Woo believes his team is laying the groundwork toward reducing greenhouse gases emission as the world transitions to renewable energy.

"It's exciting, and I am proud to be part of it."


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