Chemical engineers in the climate crisis.

Article by Isabel Key and Mina Frost.

Chemistry is the study of substances and the ways in which they react or combine [1]. Chemical Engineering is chemistry for industrial processes and applications to the real world [2]. It has historically been concerned with generating oil and gas [2] – not something you would usually associate with solving climate change! However, chemical engineering plays a central role in combatting climate change. For example:

1) Capturing CO2: in order to limit global warming to 1.5 or 2°C above pre-industrial levels, we will need to remove CO2 directly from the air [4]. For this we could use technology called Direct Air Capture (DAC) [4,18]. The concentration of CO2 in the air is very low, which makes removing it difficult [11]. DAC machines currently require a lot of energy to run and cannot yet be deployed at the required scale [4,11]. We therefore need to continue improving of the chemical reactions involved [4,20].

2) New energy sources: the majority of greenhouse gas emissions come from energy generation (72% in 2013) [6], so adopting low-emission energy sources is a priority [16]. There are a number of options which require more research, for example:

a) Capturing CO2 from coal and gas power stations and storing it underground [11] or using it in the production of a range of products including fuel, concrete, and shoes [7,8,9,10,11].

b) Better nuclear power by using thorium instead of uranium as the energy source [3,21]. Thorium is 3-4x more abundant on the planet than uranium, the operation of the reactor is safer, and it produces less nuclear waste [3,21]. However, there are many challenges to overcome in this operation which require chemical engineering research [3].

3) Sustainable food: chemical engineers can reduce emissions from food production by, for example, improving fertilizer manufacturing [13,14 ] and by using bacteria to digest manure or waste food, which releases gas which is then used as an energy source for humans [15,17].

References

[1] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/chemistry

[2] https://www.ucas.com/undergraduate/subject-guide-list/chemical-engineering See: Why study chemical engineering at university?

[3] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364032118305951#s0135 See: abstract and 6.2

[4] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-10842-5?stream=top

[5] https://cms.qut.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/533045/flatpack3-an-overview-of-energy-efficiency-opportunities-in-chemical-engineering.pdf See: e.g. paragraph starting with ‘Energy efficiency as a concept has gained significant attention…’ and Table 1

[6] https://www.c2es.org/content/international-emissions/ See: Global Manmade Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Sector, 2013

[7] https://www.businessinsider.com/repurposed-co2-shoe-without-footprint-2016-9?r=US&IR=T

[8] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/anie.201308341

[9] https://www.newscientist.com/article/2185217-the-future-with-lower-carbon-concrete/ See paragraph starting: ‘This is part of a small but growing effort to capture and use carbon emissions’

[10] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/02/bill-gates-to-strip-c02-from-air-for-clean-fuel/

[11] https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlehtml/2018/ee/c7ee02342a See: 12.2 Direct air capture of CO2 ;2 Current status of CCS development: CO2 capture, CO2 storage, CO2 utilisation

[12] https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions#emissions-by-sector See: Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by sector

[13] https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/ipcc_wg3_ar5_chapter11.pdf See: 11.2.2

[14] https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=9nCWCwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA123&dq=fertilizer+production+&ots=tX6rzrf48U&sig=FTiJWfwg5keKHRyijq4Awtiu_ng#v=onepage&q=fertilizer%20production&f=false

[15] https://www.epa.gov/agstar/how-does-anaerobic-digestion-work

[16] https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/ipcc_wg3_ar5_chapter7.pdf See: executive summary, paragraph 5

[17] http://www.biogen.co.uk/Anaerobic-Digestion/What-is-Anaerobic-Digestion

[18] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2665702

[19] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1364032111003686

[20] https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.chemrev.6b00173

[21] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-52560-4#Sec14

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