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The carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere – and how to reduce them – is a daunting and pressing problem. Climate change is driven by the excess release of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that traps heat and causes the planet’s overall warming. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased dramatically in recent decades – more than at any other point in human history – driven by industrialization and fossil fuel burning for power and transportation.
The Earth is at a crucial tipping point; the IPCC states it is necessary to prevent the global temperature from rising an additional 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (the average temperature between 1850 and 1900). In 2017, it reached 1°C and is expected to rise a further 0.5°C in the next 20 years. If the temperature does creep past this level, it is expected to trigger polar ice melting, which will cause catastrophic global damage.
The Paris Agreement aims to limit harmful emissions to delay climate change’s worst impacts on health, food security, and extreme weather. There has been substantial research into ways to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, not only by limiting emissions in the first place, but by capturing the gas already present. However, these efforts are jeopardized by the expanding use of fossil fuel burning power sources.
Targeting Net Zero with Direct Air Capture Technology
Essential to achieving net-zero emissions is large-scale carbon dioxide capture technology and solutions. Typical gas-capturing approaches include chemical absorption and using membranes to filter carbon dioxide from other gases.
Climeworks, Carbfix, and On Power are developing carbon-capturing technology to decrease the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. They will construct a new plant in Iceland which will use direct air capture technology (DAC) to return carbon dioxide to the earth. The DAC will run exclusively on the Earth’s thermal energy, which will be provided by ON Power’s geothermal power plant in Hellisheiði, Iceland.
An industrial-scale DAC project is being developed by Canada-based Carbon Engineering. The company is hoping to accelerate our efforts in meeting net-zero goals by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide present in the air by up to one million tons per year.
Video Credit: Carbon Engineering Ltd./YouTube.com
New Material and Process Developments for Capturing CO2
New materials and processes are needed to capture carbon dioxide on a global scale. Advancing carbon capture and sequestration before it is too late requires the discovery process to be significantly accelerated. Through a close interaction of high-performance computing infrastructure, sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) systems, and AI-guided automated laboratory experiments, scientists hope to understand existing materials and methods and identify areas suitable for discoveries.
Through their experiments, scientists aim to test a large number of chemical reactions, which should highlight the ‘design rules’ for molecules and chemical processes that allow for the efficient synthesis of materials optimized for carbon dioxide capture, separation, and conversion.
Using Artificial Intelligence to Reduce CO2
IBM researchers are developing a cloud-based knowledge repository of existing methods and materials. It will utilize IBM’s technology for annotation and natural language processing to mine information in patents and papers before applying AI to digest the data and present the findings, for example, by ranking the best-known materials for carbon dioxide separation.
AI can define the desired properties of materials and predict which molecules would be most suitable as building blocks for more effecting polymer membranes for carbon dioxide separation. Once captured and separated, the carbon dioxide can be used as a feedstock or raw material for monomers and polymers such as plastic, designed to focus on recyclability that allows recovery and reuse.
Scientists predict that they will be able to capture carbon dioxide more efficiently within the next five years and transform it into something useful. They aim to make the process efficient enough to scale globally, reducing carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere and slowing down climate change.
IBM has named this project as one of this year’s 5 in 5 – five ways technology will change our lives within five years. Such projects focus on accelerating the discovery of new materials to enable a more sustainable future and find solutions to pressing problems. By speeding up discovery, scientists aim to quickly identify resources that will help society address challenges detailed in the UN Sustainable Development Goals – fostering good health, clean energy, climate actions, and responsible production.
Previous 5 in 5 technology includes:
- A macroscope (a system of software and algorithms that unite data and analyze it by space and time for meaning) named PAIRS, which was utilized to achieve a macroscopic view of the impact of and response to COVID-19.
- An AI-powered robot microscope that continually monitors the conditions of the oceans to provide up-to-date data
- Anti-counterfeiting crypto-anchors and blockchain technology to ensure a product’s authenticity
Preparing for the Future
The levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are concerning many researchers. While attempts to mitigate climate change by reducing emissions and the levels of the gas already present are encouraging, more action is needed to prevent temperatures from rising. If the temperature were to exceed the 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels expected to trigger polar ice melting, the result is thought to be devastating.
New materials are required to capture carbon dioxide already present in the atmosphere, but the discovery is a long process. Accelerating progression is key to finding a solution or mitigating the effects of climate change on our home planet.
References and Further Reading
IBM (2020), Radically accelerating the process of discovery will enable our sustainable future, IBM Research [Online] https://www.research.ibm.com/5-in-5/ (accessed 13th October 2020).
IBM (2020), Capturing and transforming CO2 to mitigate climate change, IBM Research [Online] https://www.research.ibm.com/5-in-5/co2-conversion/ (accessed 13th October 2020).
IPCC, Special Report – Global Warming of 1.5 ºC, IPCC [Online] https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/chapter-1/ (accessed 13th October 2020).
United Nations Foundation, Paris Climate Agreement 101: no jargon, just facts, United Nations Foundation [Online] https://unfoundation.org/blog/post/paris-climate-agreement-101-no-jargon-just-facts/ (accessed 13th October 2020).