Posted in | News | Pollution | Carbon Credit | Hydrogen

Scientists Propose Splitting Hydrocarbons to Achieve Decarbonization

Matteo Pasquali, a carbon materials expert from Rice University, is investigating methods to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and swiftly decarbonize the world economy.

Matteo Pasquali
Rice University’s Matteo Pasquali is a chemical engineer, chemist, materials scientist, and director of the Carbon Hub research initiative. Image Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University.

According to Pasquali, splitting hydrocarbon molecules into solid carbon and hydrogen is preferable to burning oil and gas. Later, the hydrogen can be utilized as clean-burning fuel leading to zero production of carbon dioxide. Eventually, the obtained solid carbon could be an affordable and reliable source of high-performance materials utilized in several industries.

Each year, we pull more than 10 billion tons of carbon from the ground in the form of oil, coal and natural gas. That activity accounts for 7% of the global economy, and we need all possible sources of hydrogen. We can keep producing those hydrocarbons as long as we dont burn them.

Matteo Pasquali, Chemical Engineer, Chemist, and Materials Scientist, Rice University

Pasquali also leads the Carbon Hub, which is a dedicated climate change research initiative of Rice University. It is focused on utilizing hydrocarbons as feedstock to generate clean hydrogen energy and solid carbon products capable of replacing materials with huge carbon footprints.

In an opinion study reported online this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Pasquali and Carl Mesters, a retired chief scientist for chemistry and catalysis at Shell, debate on how to make a shift from burning hydrocarbons to splitting them.

According to Pasquali, the technology for both splitting hydrocarbons and producing solid carbon materials for wide industry adoption is already available. He has investigated carbon nanotubes for nearly 20 years and identified techniques for spinning the nanomaterials into sewable and threadlike fibers with the ability to conduct electricity as well as copper.

The know-how is there. We can make nanotube fibers and composites that outperform metals, but we need to scale manufacturing processes efficiently so these materials can compete with metals on price.

Matteo Pasquali, Chemical Engineer, Chemist, and Materials Scientist, Rice University

If high-performance carbon materials were plentiful enough to compete with metals in terms of price, market forces would take over and we could eliminate metals that today require 12% of our annual global energy budget to mine, process and refine,” added Pasquali.

In the PNAS study, Pasquali and Mesters report that the shift to a world where hydrocarbons are split instead of burned, “will generate robust growth in manufacturing jobs, most of which will stay at the local level where oil and gas are already established.”

The researchers propose that governments or a coalition of governments cannot induce the transition. Rather, they say that philanthropists, leaders, government officials, researchers, and others have the caliber to transform the trend, by working together.

Were in a position similar to solar energy a few decades ago: We know we can deliver performance, but manufacturing and scale have to improve to drive costs down. We must get there faster than solar did.

Matteo Pasquali, Chemical Engineer, Chemist and Materials Scientist, Rice University

The Carbon Hub was established in December 2019, with a $10 million commitment from Shell and assistance from the Prysmian Group and Mitsubishi Corp. (Americas). It operates with industry collaborators to guide and fund fundamental science and engineering for technologies aiming to divide hydrocarbons to yield both valuable carbon materials and clean hydrogen energy.

Journal Reference:

Pasquali, M & Mesters, C (2021) Opinion: We can use carbon to decarbonize—and get hydrogen for free. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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