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Rice Univ, Shell Partner on Sustainable Carbon

Matteo Pasquali with carbon nanotube fibers

Matteo Pasquali holds a spool of fibers made from carbon nanotubes (Jeff Fitlow, Rice University)

10 Dec. 2019. Rice University and the energy company Shell launched a program to sustainably produce carbon derived from splitting rather than burning hydrocarbons. The Carbon Hub, as the project is known, is financed initially by a $10 million grant from Shell, but the program aims to expand to 20 institutions, supporting 70 researchers, and conducting basic science and engineering valued at $100 million.

The Carbon Hub is seeking new carbon-based products adding no greenhouse gas emissions that accelerate the impending climate crisis. Current efforts to derive clean hydrogen fuel from splitting hydrocarbons, say the partners, result in three tons of solid carbon for each ton of hydrogen produced. The Carbon Hub, on the other hand, aims to find ways of producing carbon-based products directly from hydrocarbons with zero emissions, leaving hydrogen as a by-product.

“Finding a productive use for carbon at a very large scale is the key,” says Matteo Pasquali, a chemical engineering professor at Rice in Houston and director of the Carbon Hub, in a university statement, “and the novelty of the Carbon Hub is that we’re going to do something very useful with the carbon.” Pasquali’s lab studies the behavior of molecules at nano- to microscale dimensions, including carbon nanotubes and fibers.

The Carbon Hub aims to build on these advances, with practical applications for carbon-based products in construction and transportation. The payoff for the climate, say the researchers, is development of materials in construction and transportation that are lighter than current metals, but at least as strong.

Applications extend as well to agriculture. “One potential use of solid carbon is as a soil additive,” notes Carrie Masiello, professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences, “where properly engineered carbonaceous materials can improve crop yields and resilience to drought.” Masiello is also one of the Carbon Hub researchers.

In addition to new product development, the Carbon Hub expects to investigate supply chain implications of sustainable carbon, as well as the need for new policies and community engagement to support advances in technology. Pasquali says that without attention to these factors, the effects of new technologies on climate change can be wasted.

“For example,” Pasquali adds, “you make cars more fuel efficient by removing weight, and then realize you’ve increased CO2 emissions by using more aluminum and carbon fibers. Or you try to fix CO2 into a useful product, and you realize you now need much more energy than you had gotten by making the CO2 in the first place”

Sharon Beshouri, president of Shell Global Solutions, notes that the Carbon Hub can play a key role in the company’s transformation from mainly an energy supplier. “The use of clean hydrogen and carbon materials,” says Beshouri, “has the potential to be game-changing in the energy transition. Carbon Hub aligns with Shell’s vision to provide more and cleaner energy solutions around the world.”

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