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Prioritizing environmental justice while capturing carbon from the air

Reaching carbon emission goals requires efforts on all fronts of carbon management: decreasing carbon emissions, capturing carbon, and storing carbon. Traditionally, cost and resource availability are leading factors that determine how and where these efforts are made, leaving environmental and societal impacts as afterthoughts.

Penn Engineers in the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy’s Clean Energy Conversions Laboratory are changing this by prioritizing environmental justice throughout the entire life cycle of carbon management.

The Clean Energy Conversions Lab is currently led by Peter Psarras, research assistant professor in chemical and biomolecular engineering (CBE), while Jennifer Wilcox, Presidential Distinguished Professor in Chemical Engineering and Energy Policy in CBE, serves in the Department of Energy for the Biden Administration. The lab’s mission is to minimize the environmental and climate impacts of the world’s dependence on fossil fuels through carbon management.

The group’s research focuses on three main questions: How can we limit atmospheric accumulation of carbon dioxide; what can we do with the carbon dioxide once it is captured; and how will those solutions scale to meet our needs?

One particular technology Psarras and fellow researchers in the Clean Energy Conversions Lab examine is direct air capture (DAC) of carbon dioxide. DAC is technology which extracts carbon dioxide from the air through a series of chemical reactions, returning the “cleaned” air back into the environment. Plants do this through photosynthesis, while DAC does this through an engineered, mechanical system, which requires a fraction of the time and physical space of their biological counterparts.

Psarras’ work in carbon management modeling has also been a key part in helping the state of Nevada reach net zero by 2050. In collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, Psarras and his team have provided multiple cases which include various degrees of capturing, reducing, and storing carbon to reach this goal.

Psarras and his students are planning a follow-up study in Nevada where they will sample the mines as potential carbon storage areas, as well as conduct interviews with community members to understand what they want and how they will respond to future policies.

“Our work is constantly weighing harms against each other because there is no solution that will have zero negative impact,” says Psarras. “And this is the reason we cannot have knee-jerk reactions to any solutions offered to reach these goals. Our goal as a lab is to inform through science-based dialog, and we’re beginning to understand the importance of doing that beyond a purely academic audience.”

This story is by Melissa Pappas. Read more at Penn Engineering Today.