uOttawa researchers play the materials “mating game” to cut greenhouse gas emissions, Darwin-style

Posted on Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Smoke stacks / Cheminées industrielles

Climate change is arguably the greatest challenge of our generation. Governments and businesses worldwide are looking at new and innovative ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions. One key strategy to reduce them is carbon capture and storage, which involves scrubbing CO2 from the combustion flue gas of fossil fuel-burning power plants and permanently storing it underground.

With coal-burning power plants accounting for 40% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, carbon capture and storage has the potential to be a game-changer in efforts to limit climate change. The problem? With existing technologies, it is too energy intensive, and therefore too expensive, for most companies to implement. It ends up costing far more than the typical carbon tax, so companies often prefer to pay the tax rather than capture the CO2.

A team of researchers led by Tom Woo, professor at the University of Ottawa’s Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences, has turned to computer simulations — and Darwinism — to find better materials to capture CO2 in order to lower the cost of carbon capture.

“To optimize materials, we have used a novel method that is based on Darwin’s survival of the fittest.  We generate a population of materials, before ‘mating’ them to produce a new generation. Only the ‘strongest’ survive to mate and go to the next generation.  After many generations, an optimal material is found,” explains Woo. 

This method is called a genetic algorithm, a means by which researchers can optimize materials by mimicking the natural selection process. Woo and his team have proven the new method’s efficiency by reducing the energy requirements of carbon capture.

For Sean Collins, a PhD candidate in the Woo lab and first author of the researchers’ paper, “The materials mating algorithm can be used to find optimal materials not only for carbon capture but for other applications such as chemical and petroleum refining, sensors and even drug delivery.”

Woo says his team’s computer simulations show there are real opportunities to develop high performing materials that could be commercialized for large-scale CO2 capture. His team has already been studying the potential of existing materials to remove methane from landfill gases for a company. Woo is now looking to develop materials that would make oil production, particularly from Alberta’s oil sands, more greenhouse gas friendly.

Read the full report in Sciences Advances

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