Climate change, Metal-Organic Frameworks, the Fight to Fund Research – Oh My!
Zero waste by 2020. Carbon Neutral by 2025. Since the turn of the century, it seems as if UC Berkeley has been at the forefront of the movement to stunt climate change. We’ve set and met carbon reduction targets, installed large-scale solar panels on the roof of MLK and Eshleman, revamped building infrastructure, transformed waste systems, and much much more. As a research institution, we’ve also been considered a leader of scientific progress, from designing the first cyclotron in 1931, to discovering CRISPR gene editing in 2012. Research at UC Berkeley has continued to address the greatest problems of our time, and climate change is our greatest challenge.
One potentially promising area of research concerning climate change involves carbon capture and sequestration, which refers to the process of capturing carbon dioxide from stationary sources (e.g. coal-fired power plants) before it is released into the atmosphere and storing it underground. The basic principle at play is combustion of fuel, separating the “good” gases from the “bad”, and finally, storage of the “bad” ones. A schematic of the general process and how it could be applied to the coal industry is shown below:
Successfully “capturing” CO2 relies on the efficiency of separations. There are two essential components of a separation: first, selectively isolating CO2 from other gases (mainly N2) in the pre-exhaust of the power plant and second, recovering the CO2 to be compressed, transported, and stored underground. One very promising separation method is called adsorption.
Adsorption is the transfer of molecule(s) between the gas phase and a solid surface. In adsorption processes, carbon dioxide can selectively adhere to a porous material, under standard flue gas* pressure, separating it from (mostly) N2, which remains gaseous.
One promising candidate for carbon capture is a MOF or “metal-organic framework”, which is essentially a nanoscale grid made up of metal joints that are linked together by organic molecules. MOFs can come in various shapes and sizes; for example, a MOF can be shaped like a series of fused, stacked rings with open cylindrical pores. The surface area of these materials is astounding (one gram of material has an internal surface area that could cover nearly two football fields!). That’s a lot of open space that will be able to hold quite a bit of CO2.
However, carbon dioxide must be separated from the other gases for it be of any practical use. This means carbon dioxide has to “stick” to the MOF the best out of all the other gases. Turns out, for many MOFs and other adsorbent materials, water was actually the stickiest molecule, and CO2 was kicked to the curb.
All wasn’t lost —researchers have recently discovered that attaching nitrogen-based compounds, called amines, to the MOF can selectively retain CO2 in the presence of water — a success! For one promising MOF discovered at UC Berkeley, this works through a process in which CO2 and the amines can connect to one another to form an extended chain atop the original MOF. In this way, MOFs act as a scaffold for CO2, temporarily holding onto the gas until a small increase in temperature prompts its release.
Currently, there are two main groups on campus that conduct MOF research (under Professor Long and Professor Yaghi) in the College of Chemistry. The majority of MOF research in the Long group revolves around functionalizing amines on metal sites, while the Yaghi group’s MOFs display amines on the organic linkers. There are pros and cons to both types of configurations, having to do with how difficult it is to make, how much CO2 it can capture, how durable the MOF is, etc. Research in this field is always evolving, constantly discovering new MOFs and experimental methods for determining its carbon capture capabilities.
Science has the power to explain and address the various phenomena of the natural world. At times, the scientific community can be out of reach, especially when the literature is overwhelmed with so much jargon it’s like a different language all together. But we all have a relationship with science; we interact with it everyday, from the styrene plastic in our boba cups to the benzene-derived aniline-based indigo dye in our blue jeans. This is why science, and more specifically research, is so important. It shapes the world we know today; it cultivates and strengthens creativity, drive, and hard-work; it pushes us to ask questions, make mistakes, and learn along the way.
But recently, funding for our research is under serious threat. We have seen many accounts of climate change skepticism from the current administration, resulting in the cancelation of a $10 mil NASA research program aimed at measuring carbon flux in the environment, a 33% proposed budget cut for the EPA by eliminating the Climate Change Research and Partnership program, a 56% proposed budget cut to the National Science Foundation program, as well as various threats to state budgets for Florida, Virginia, Wyoming, North Carolina, and Kentucky climate programs. Climate change is surely wreaking havoc on our ecosystems, our communities, but these funding cuts almost guarantee that nothing will change. Now is the time to speak up about climate change, our generation will suffer if we continue on like generations before us. So what can you do about it?
Tell your family, tell your friends, tell your representatives. Talk about how real climate change is. Tell them why they should care. And stay optimistic. If we tackle climate change at all angles, from a political, scientific, social, and economic approach, we can arrive at a solution that not only saves our environment, but also creates a sustainable world for future generations.