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Circular economy needed to reduce America's carbon emissions

In a focused effort to reduce carbon emissions across the U.S. to net zero, researchers have united from various Department of Energy national laboratories.

This comprehensive initiative is led by teams at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and includes collaboration from Pacific Northwest, Brookhaven, Argonne, Lawrence Berkeley, Ames, and SLAC National Accelerator laboratories. Together, the experts are targeting some of the most carbon-intensive sectors of the economy.

Recovering carbon from existing processes

Traditionally, efforts to mitigate carbon emissions have focused on capturing or sequestering carbon – known as decarbonization.

However, a new strategy, which the researchers refer to as “defossilization,” seeks to minimize the need for extracting new fossil fuels. Instead, it emphasizes recovering and repurposing carbon from existing processes and products.

Stephen Streiffer, the director of ORNL, highlighted the importance of this collaborative effort: “Carbon is a vital part of many of today’s products and processes, and we must be creative in how to address its use in the face of global climate change,” said Streiffer.

The proposed “circular economy” would aim to reclaim much of the carbon already present in areas like power generation and materials difficult to recycle, such as biomass, municipal waste, biomethane, carbon dioxide, and plastics.

By reusing carbon where possible, this approach could significantly reduce new emissions, particularly in sectors like transportation and industry, which together account for over 50% of the U.S. carbon footprint and are notoriously hard to transition to electricity.

Need for defossilization to reduce carbon emissions

“Electrifying with carbon-free energy sources will be a critical component of decarbonization. However, several segments of our economy, including the manufacturing of chemicals and polymeric materials, will continue to need carbon,” wrote the researchers.

“In addition, segments of our transportation economy will also be difficult to electrify due to the size and weight of the batteries that would be needed, including aviation, long-haul, heavy-duty, and marine transportation. Together, these ‘hard-to-electrify’ segments contribute to ~20% of the overall US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” 

“Although efforts are being made to decarbonize parts of these segments, they are unlikely to completely transition from carbon. We can reduce carbon use by increasing efficiency and reducing waste, but that approach alone will not be sufficient to achieve net-zero CO2 emissions.” 

“We therefore posit that defossilization, or removing fossil fuels while still using carbon in our economy, is a critical part of achieving net-zero CO2 emissions for difficult-to-electrify sectors.” 

Translating discoveries into applications

Achieving the ambitious goal of a circular carbon economy requires a rapid advancement in scientific and technological innovation.

Michelle K. Kidder, a distinguished researcher and program manager at ORNL, emphasized the urgency of this task. “Maintaining today’s 15- to 20-year discover-design-develop-deploy cycle will not allow us to slow, stop, or even reverse climate impacts in time to meet aggressive 2030 and 2050 U.S. targets,” said Kidder.

“We must instead find new ways to approach fundamental advancements in science and more quickly translate discoveries into applications that can make significant impact on emissions reductions.”

Overcoming barriers to reduce carbon emissions

Hundreds of scientists and technical experts from across the national laboratory system are diligently working to overcome longstanding scientific and technological barriers.

ORNL’s research, for instance, combines advanced tools such as artificial intelligence and machine learning with chemistry to develop new materials.

This effort is bolstered by Frontier, the world’s fastest supercomputer, which supports essential high-performance computations for developing new energy technologies. These include advanced nuclear reactors and potential fusion solutions aimed at reducing carbon emissions.

As these scientific endeavors progress, it is crucial to integrate techno-economic and lifecycle analyses. This approach is vital for identifying the potential environmental and social impacts of new technologies, ensuring that solutions are not only effective but also equitable.

“Even as we look for alternatives to reusing and keeping carbon in play, defossilization must allow equitable and ecological solutions for everyone,” explained Kidder. “If we can bring this vision to fruition at the urgent pace needed, we also can reduce carbon dioxide and its consequent impact on the environment while ensuring that no community is left behind.”

A collaborative effort to reduce carbon emissions

The roadmap laid out by these researchers offers a promising path toward a sustainable, low-carbon future. By fostering collaboration and accelerating the pace of innovation, there is hope for significantly reducing the U.S. carbon footprint, closing the carbon cycle, and achieving the net-zero emissions necessary to combat climate change effectively.

This ambitious endeavor not only seeks to safeguard the planet but also to ensure a healthier, more sustainable environment for future generations.

The study is published in the journal Nature Reviews Chemistry.


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