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Modern alchemy turns greenhouse gas into useful solid

UND researcher receives $1.25 million grant to transform carbon dioxide into minerals

Johannes Van der Watt, research assistant professor with the UND Institute of Energy Studies, has received more than $1.2 million in federal funding to study how to capture carbon dioxide in a solid form. Photo by: Adam Kurtz/UND Today

Johannes Van der Watt, research assistant professor at UND’s Institute of Energy Studies, has been awarded more than $1.25 million in funding to study the feasibility of using industrial residues to capture carbon dioxide in a solid form—and then using that solid in a beneficial way.

The grant was awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy for a growing area of interest in carbon storage: recycling it into a useful and solid mineral. Van der Watt will investigate the carbon capture potential of numerous sources of industrial residues, such as cement kiln dust, coal ash and recycled concrete.

Van Der Watt has been named Principal Investigator for the project, and will be assisted by Envergex LLC, a Massachusetts-based company that specializes in technology development and commercialization.

Van der Watt said it is important to take a “cradle to grave” approach when examining the implications of the overall carbon lifecycle of a material.

“Let’s use what is in our backyard,” Van der Watt said. “We are looking at a wide variety of industries and asking how they can help reduce our CO2 emissions using what is available to them to either capture CO2 and store it indefinitely, or use if for something beneficial.”

One example Van der Watt is investigating is the potential of using cement kiln dust or recycled concrete to capture CO2 in mineral forms. Those minerals can then potentially be used in the manufacture of new concrete. Successfully doing so will mean permanently storing CO2 in a safe manner while reducing the amount of new concrete needed for large construction projects, yielding environmental and economic benefits.

Residue sources with degraded potential for carbon capture could also still be mineralized (capturing what CO2 it can) and then storing the inert material in a landfill, or using it in construction projects as a filler.

Dan Laudal, research professor at the Institute of Energy Studies, said mineralization as a pathway to reducing emissions to the atmosphere is of growing interest to the industrial sector.

“I am particularly excited about this new award because it will provide our team the opportunity to explore many new types of feedstocks and processes,” Laudal said. “In addition to related work we have going on, I think this project will put us in position to be a leader in this emerging research area.”

Laudal continued: “I am extremely proud of the work we are doing and congratulate Johannes on this important new award.”

According to the research proposal, identified industrial residue sources have the potential to capture and store 20 million metric tons of CO2 per year. But capturing those 20 million metric tons in an efficient way is the challenge.

Van der Watt said that not all forms of industrial residues may be equal when it comes to efficiently capturing CO2 through mineralization. Which is one of the reasons of the importance of the project: it has not been evaluated before.

“Carbon capture might be a good application for a particular residue, but until we actually assess it, we can’t say if it is good,” he said.

Part of the project also includes looking at the geographic locations of a source of high-potential industrial residue. Transporting a potential source over a great distance may negate its positive impact on the environment, meaning proximity to the CO2 source and end application for the mineralized products are important.

Van der Watt said a holistic approach to carbon capture is necessary, as there may not be one source of industrial residues that can account for 20 million metric tons of the gas. A variety of different residues may be needed to account for a significant amount of safe carbon storage.

“What might work well for one industry with their residue, might not work well with the same conditions for a different industry,” he said.