Michigan Engineering News

Professor Sick's research group look at their findings. Photo: Joseph Xu

‘Carbon negative, dollar positive’

A new initiative aspires to turn a greenhouse gas into profitable products.

Professor Sick with a student
Professor Sick’s research group look at their findings. Photo: Joseph Xu

Removing carbon dioxide from the air and turning it into useful products is the long-term goal of a new initiative at the University of Michigan.

The Global CO2 Initiative is funded with up to $4.5 million—a maximum of $2.5 million in seed funding from Michigan Engineering and an additional $2 million in other fundraising commitments.

The initiative aims to reduce the equivalent of 10 percent of current atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions annually by 2030. That’s roughly 4 gigatons that could potentially be converted into concrete and other construction materials, fuels, and carbon fiber for use in lightweight vehicles and fabrics, for example.  

“Our vision is to transform the liability of carbon dioxide emissions into an economic opportunity,” said Volker Sick, associate vice president for research of natural sciences and engineering at the University of Michigan and Global CO2 Initiative lead. “We believe innovations in carbon dioxide removal and utilization technologies can generate a carbon-negative, dollar-positive effect that will reduce emission footprints while generating billions of dollars of economic activity in the decades ahead.”

The Global CO2 Initiative combines the assets of the San Francisco non-profit CO2 Sciences with what was previously the Beyond Carbon Neutral initiative at the U-M Energy Institute. While both endeavors aimed to accelerate the rate at which carbon dioxide is removed from the air, CO2 Sciences worked to find uses for that extracted greenhouse gas. The board of CO2 Sciences elected to donate its assets to U-M in order to leverage its resources and ecosystem.

“Access to U-M’s relationships with researchers, policymakers, and industry partners, paired with its world-class faculty and facilities, creates a well-positioned ecosystem to support the deployment of carbon management technologies with players from around the world,” said Bernard J. David, who founded CO2 Sciences and announced it at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2016. “And mass adoption of carbon utilization and removal technologies across multiple sectors is critical to meeting our common challenge of reducing the effects of climate change.”

U-M is creating an infrastructure to support researchers through technology assessment, development and commercialization of CO2-based products. The initiative’s primary strategy is to drive the development of technologies that can capture and convert carbon dioxide into a commodity—providing commercial incentives to lower the concentration in the atmosphere.

As a first step, the initiative will deploy, for free download, a first-of-its-kind toolkit that establishes a common model for assessing the climate and economic impacts of different technologies in the carbon conversion industry, as well as of CO2-based products themselves. The Life Cycle Analysis and Techno-Economic Analysis Toolkit, abbreviated LCA/TEA, is the only internationally developed system of its kind. As it was developed in collaboration with institutions from around the world, it is well-suited to evaluate technologies for a global market.

XPRIZE will use the toolkit to help select the winner of its $20 million Reimagining CO2 Competition. Reimagining CO2 aims to identify breakthrough technologies that will convert CO2 emissions from power plants and industrial facilities into products.

The Global CO2 Initiative leverages the strength of the expansive sustainability ecosystem at U-M, and it exemplifies Michigan Engineering’s drive to serve the common good.

Alec D. Gallimore, Robert J Vlasic Dean of Engineering

The toolkit is designed to help researchers and industry evaluate which carbon removal approaches or carbon-based products are most promising. Similar tools were instrumental in the ‘90s as R&D for advanced electric vehicle batteries scaled up.

“This is a bold approach to tackling one of the most daunting challenges facing society,” said Alec D. Gallimore, who is the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering, the Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Professor, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, and a professor both of aerospace engineering and of applied physics. “The Global CO2 Initiative leverages the strength of the expansive sustainability ecosystem at U-M, and it exemplifies Michigan Engineering’s drive to serve the common good.”

U-M is home to world-class programs and institutes in engineering, sustainability, public policy and beyond, including the U-M Energy Institute, Michigan Engineering, the School for Environment and Sustainability and the Graham Sustainability Institute.  

“The Global CO2 Initiative provides an important opportunity to advance our common mission of developing innovative technologies and approaches to solving some of the most complex sustainability challenges we face locally and globally,” said Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at U-M and an interdisciplinary climate scientist.

Initial research partners for the toolkit include the Technical University of Berlin, the University of Sheffield, RWTH Aachen and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam. U-M is continuing to expand funding commitments and research partners for this initiative.

The $2.5 million in seed funding from Michigan Engineering is part of its new Blue Sky Initiative designed to encourage daring research with high potential for societal impact.

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Kate McAlpine

Research News Editor