Even with quick-paced developments in renewable energy, the world still produces the vast majority of its power via fossil fuels: over 80 percent. 18-year-old Ethan Novek is working on technology that could allow us to burn fossil fuels without climate change-inducing emissions, giving us time to install more renewable energy. His carbon dioxide (CO2) capture technology stands out from the rest because it could capture CO2 at about $10 per metric ton – around 85 percent less than the industry standard.
Novek made the discovery that would lead to his potentially game-changing technology in his high school chemistry laboratory. CO2 capture technology has traditionally drawn on a substance such as amine that selectively reacts with just CO2 as other gases escape. The substance is then heated to break the chemical bond for a release of the greenhouse gas that can be converted into products. But the amines used are expensive, and it takes a lot of heat to break that bond. Novek’s discovery could overcome these issues.
In his high school laboratory, Novek was hoping to utilize a technique known as salting out to cheaply produce urea, a nitrogen-based fertilizer. He realized he could actually use the process to separate out and capture CO2 after fossil fuels are burned.
Here’s how it could work: at a fossil fuel plant, exhaust gases could be piped into a mix of water and ammonia. Inert gases like oxygen would escape as ammonia reacted with CO2, forming a salt. A solvent could break the salt back into CO2 and ammonia. Distillation could separate the ammonia and solvent mix so each component could be recycled. And the CO2 could be transformed into chemicals like acetic acid or synthetic gas. The CO2 capture process needs 75 percent less energy than others.
Novek attracted the attention of Yale University professor Menachem Elimelech, and with other Yale researchers they wrote a study published last year in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters. Novek started a company, Innovator Energy, and is working on a pilot plant that could use waste gas from a chemical factory or power plant to capture 1,000 kilograms of carbon emissions per day.