Re-casting CO₂ as the good guy

Dr Emma Lovell says the motivating factor for getting into her research field of carbon dioxide (CO₂) conversion technologies was to mitigate the impact of anthropogenic CO₂ emissions into the atmosphere by harnessing them as a valuable fuel source.

If she and her colleagues can pull it off, and she believes they can, they’ll be addressing two of the biggest problems facing humanity: the climate change emergency and the energy crisis.

Dr Emma Lovell

“Climate change is probably the single greatest threat facing society at the moment and, unfortunately, a direct transition to a carbon-free energy-based society is not something that will happen anytime soon,” she says.

“The idea behind my research is to reframe the way we look at CO₂, away from this awful thing that’s ruining our planet, towards an abundant resource we can use to solve problems. By using CO₂ to create fuel, we’re laying a steppingstone to an overall more sustainable future.”

After completing her undergraduate studies at UNSW as a co-op scholar, and really enjoying the research component of her degree, Lovell started her PhD at the world-renowned Particles and Catalysis Laboratory (PartCat) in 2012. PartCat is led by Scientia Professor Rose Amal and has pushed the boundaries of what’s possible with her “deliberately ambitious” plan to use catalysts to turn CO₂ from a substance threatening the stability of our climate, into a fuel and useful industrial feedstock.

The idea behind my research is to reframe the way we look at CO₂, away from this awful thing that’s ruining our planet, towards an abundant resource we can use to solve problems. By using CO₂ to create fuel, we’re laying a steppingstone to an overall more sustainable future.

Dr Emma Lovell, Lecturer, Particles and Catalysis Laboratory, UNSW Chemical Engineering

“My PhD focused on designing catalysts, using a technique called flame spray pyrolysis, to convert CO₂ into synthesis gas, and from there, to synthetic fuels. I enjoyed it so much, I joined the team as a postdoc researcher,” explains Lovell.

Today, her work is focused on CO₂ reforming, which means converting CO₂ into useful products. “My research involves examining energy sources that include plasma (i.e. lightning), plasmon (i.e. light), and also heat to design materials that can use those different types of energy to convert CO₂ into useable fuels. I’m particularly excited about plasma because we have found a way to generate a form of control lightning within the laboratory and use it to turn CO₂ into a fuel,” she explains. “The method works by generating an electric field across two pieces of glass, called dielectric barriers, and using plasma to interact with a catalyst. This has great potential because it can be done without major infrastructure and is scalable. It’s also not well-understood in the literature at the moment, so it’s an exciting space to be working in.”

As for when we might see this technology in the commercial setting, Lovell says the knowledge and, to a certain extent, the technology is there, but it is not yet at the stage where it is either efficient or economical. This, she says, is the focus of the future.

“It will become a worthwhile venture when the value of the CO₂ balances out the cost of implementing the technology. Our work is still relatively fundamental, so now it is a case of working at it until the knowledge we create is industrialisable.”

From a personal perspective, Lovell says her work gives her a real thrill. “Being at the forefront of discovering new materials and new reaction pathways and trying to understand something that no-one has ever seen before, is wonderful. It’s a hugely motivating thing to be contributing to the great sea of knowledge in this field.”

In addition to a strong passion for her research, Lovell says she is also deeply interested in science outreach, science education and increasing the number of women working in STEMM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine).

“It is essential for scientists like me to communicate what we are doing to the public. Science is largely funded by taxpayer dollars after all, and we have a responsibility to prove we are using those dollars wisely,” she says.

“Also, particularly as a female engineer, promoting diversity in the engineering discipline is something I’m really interested in. Diversity is what fosters innovation, so the more we can create equal opportunities across all aspects of science, the more we will create real benefits for society as a whole.”

Written by: Penny Jones

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