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02 February 2024

Scientists Who Hunt CO2 Directly in the Air

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In order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ensure energy security, it is not enough to reduce emissions; it is crucial to increase research into technologies that enable carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS). Chemical engineer Anna Mas (Terrasa, Barcelona, 1995) is researching just such a technology, specifically one that enables direct air capture (DAC). 

“In addition to deep cuts in emissions, the IPCC indicates that the world will need to remove between two and 20 gigatonnes of CO2 per year from the atmosphere by 2050 to limit warming to 1.5°C, and one of the most promising approaches is direct air capture,” explains this scientist. 

BBVA-OpenMInd-Perez de Pablos-Anna Mas cientificos que cazan CO2 directamente del aire_1 La ingeniera química Anna Mas (Terrasa, Barcelona, 1995) investiga las tecnologías que permiten la captura, almacenamiento y uso de carbono (CCUS). Crédito: Anna Mas
Chemical engineer Anna Mas (Terrasa, Barcelona, 1995) researches technologies that enable carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS). Credit: Anna Mas.

There are two types of carbon dioxide capture. One is direct capture at point sources in industrial facilities that emit large amounts of CO2, such as a factory smokestack or a power plant. The other is direct air capture, which removes CO2 directly from the air, an approach that Anna Mas is researching. 

“The captured CO2 can be compressed and transported to permanent storage, such as saline aquifer formations, or it can be converted into new products”

“Specifically, DAC aims to reduce atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide from dispersed, hard-to-avoid and historical sources,” she argues. Later, “the captured CO2 can be compressed and transported to permanent storage, such as saline aquifer formations, or it can be converted into new products.”

BBVA-OpenMInd-Perez de Pablos-DAC technology aims to reduce atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide from dispersed sources. Credit: steinphoto / Getty Images
DAC technology aims to reduce atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide from dispersed sources. Credit: steinphoto / Getty Images.

“The use of captured carbon dioxide is a potential technology to move away from fossil carbon, using COas an alternative feedstock for the production of chemicals or fuels”

Their current goal is to optimise the efficiency of this CO2 capture process to make it as cost-effective as possible. How are they doing this? “We have a device that works at atmospheric temperature and pressure conditions where the CO2 present in the air passes through the pores of the highly hydrophobic membrane and, in contact with the adsorbent solution and in the presence of the enzyme carbonic anhydrase, the conversion of CO2 to bicarbonates is catalysed.” 

“The use of captured carbon dioxide is a potential technology to move away from fossil carbon, using CO2 as an alternative feedstock for the production of valuable products, such as chemicals or fuels,” she says. 

This brilliant young scientist is currently working on her doctoral research thanks to the collaboration of no less than three entities: the Greennova Foundation (which runs several projects with the common goal of mitigating climate change), Eurecat, a technology centre that acts as a link between academia and industry, and the Rovira i Virgili University (URV), where she is studying specifically in the field of membranes. “The aim of this collaboration, and of my research is to design a device that works passively and captures the CO2 that may be present, for example, in an office.” 

BBVA-OpenMInd-Perez de Pablos-Anna Mas cientificos que cazan CO2 directamente del aire_3 El objetivo actual de Anna Mas es optimizar la eficiencia de ese proceso de captura de CO2 para que sea lo más rentable posible. Crédito: Photo by DAVID GANNON/AFP via Getty Images.
Anna Mas’s current goal is to optimise the efficiency of this CO2 capture process to make it as cost-effective as possible. Credit: Photo by DAVID GANNON/AFP via Getty Images.

“The aim of my research is to design a device that works passively and captures CO2 that may be present, for example, in an office” 

Internationally, several companies are dedicated to capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the best known being Climeworks and Carbon Engineering. But the uniqueness of Anna Mas’ project “is that we are working on a dynamic device that works at ambient temperature and pressure, and the captured carbon is reused.” 

“The current situation also poses a significant threat to global food security,” she warns. “Disruptions in food production due to extreme weather events and changes in crop growing conditions can lead to food shortages and higher food prices,” she says. “A clear example is the current drought we are experiencing.”

“The climate crisis also poses a significant threat to global food security” 

Furthermore, this scientist believes that preventive measures could be taken that are already scientifically known but have not been implemented. “Current policies are not up to the task of the moment we are living through. There is a lack of policies to promote energy transition, regulation of emissions (in the case of CO2, forcing large polluting companies to capture what they themselves emit or generate), energy efficiency, promotion of sustainable agriculture, circular economy policies or a ban on short-haul flights with alternatives by train, as has been done in France,” she suggests. 

BBVA-OpenMInd-Perez de Pablos-Anna The use of captured carbon dioxide is a potential technology for moving away from fossil carbon. Credit: Jackyenjoyphotography / Getty Images.
The use of captured carbon dioxide is a potential technology for moving away from fossil carbon. Credit: Jackyenjoyphotography / Getty Images.

“And we need to find more sustainable freight transport because currently more than 95% of freight transport in Spain is by road,” the researcher reminds us.

“There is a lack of policies to promote the energy transition and the regulation of emissions, such as forcing large polluting companies to capture the CO2 they themselves emit or generate”

She also makes a suggestion: “Carbon footprint labels could be introduced on many products, which would influence consumers’ purchasing decisions and encourage companies to improve their energy efficiency.” 

BBVA-OpenMInd-Perez de Pablos-Anna Mas Disruptions to food production due to extreme weather events can lead to food shortages, this scientist warns. Credit: Photograph by Devon OpdenDries / Getty Images.
Disruptions to food production due to extreme weather events can lead to food shortages, this scientist warns. Credit: Photograph by Devon OpdenDries / Getty Images.

On the other hand, science and technology are advancing by leaps and bounds, and there is a lack of policies to implement them. Businesses should not have to deal with uncertain or inadequate policies when applying these technologies. 

The young researcher experienced the pandemic in Sweden, where she was an Erasmus student. “It made me realise how important it is to take care of nature and how globalised our actions are,” she recalls. “That time, although very hard, was a respite for the planet and should be what we aspire to in the future,” she concludes. 

Susana Pérez de Pablos

Main picture credit: Dirk Meister

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