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Public Carbon Capture and Sequestration

What is the compelling question or challenge?

Climate change, caused by increasing atmospheric CO2, has brought our planet to the brink of disaster. The Big Idea: develop technologies for the public to capture and sequester atmospheric carbon.

What do we know now about this Big Idea and what are the key research questions we need to address?

Levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) have been increasing at an accelerating rate since the beginning of the industrial period. Because of the addition of this greenhouse gas to the atmosphere, our planet is warming, with dire consequences for biodiversity and human societies.

For members of the general public in industrialized nations, efforts to curb climate change focus on reducing CO2 emissions in their daily lives. These efforts have met with some success: technologies and products that enable the public to reduce emissions (e.g., zero- or reduced-emission vehicles and access to green energy) are rapidly advancing and being adopted by consumers. Nevertheless, carbon emissions are not declining at a rate that will reverse the impacts of climate change. Moreover, even if global carbon emissions were reduced immediately to pre-industrial levels, current levels of CO2 would continue to fuel the deleterious global impacts already occurring. We therefore need new approaches to carbon capture and sequestration.

Currently, the focus on carbon capture and sequestration is large-scale removal of CO2 via either: industrial-level carbon capture and sequestration; or protection and restoration of forest ecosystems. However, industrial-scale carbon capture is expensive and meets political resistance, and forests are under increasing threat from both agricultural conversion and climate change’s negative impacts from disease, drought, and fire.

The Big Idea: An alternative route to carbon capture and sequestration is small-scale carbon capture and sequestration––with mass participation. If existing infrastructure and activities in which the general public engages could be leveraged for carbon capture and sequestration, then even low levels of carbon capture and sequestration, when broadly adopted by the general public, could offset CO2 emissions. This Big Idea seeks to leverage the power of small change by many to create big impacts on carbon reduction.

Specifically, this Big Idea requires that the following key research questions be addressed:

  1. Can we use existing infrastructure to bring carbon capture and sequestration out of the industrial realm and into the public sphere? For example, can existing structures be fitted with the means of carbon capture and can captured carbon be sequestered or commoditized using existing municipal facilities and networks (such as waste collection, landfills)?
  2. Can we use chemical and biological engineering to develop routes for small scale, but widely available carbon capture and sequestration? Can these routes be readily integrated into consumer products, homes, public spaces, and commercial buildings? For example, can we develop CO2-binding biomembrane coatings for consumer products that bind CO2 when exposed to air, and then effectively sequester CO2 when products go to landfills?
  3. Can we engineer new agricultural lines and photosynthetic microorganisms for agriculture and residential or community landscaping that foster carbon capture and sequestration? Can we develop soil additives that enhance carbon sequestration?
  4. What are the risks and downstream challenges of deploying the above technologies? How can risks be minimized so that new materials are safe for use in people’s homes, municipalities, and local landscapes?
  5. What are the implications for public carbon capture and sequestration on biotic, aquatic, and climate systems, especially those that might already be impacted by global change? What unexpected effects (such as time delays, complex interactions) might confound our understanding of the responses of these systems to the above technologies?

Addressing these questions requires interdisciplinary research and collaboration across agencies and among research and technology groups in government, academia and the private-sector. This problem is therefore ideally suited for investment from the National Science Foundation.

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