One major strategy to achieve net-zero carbon emissions revolves around transitioning various sectors of the economy, such as transportation and heating, to operate on electricity generated from renewable sources. However, there are areas in society where carbon elimination is not feasible, such as in the case of plastics which are comprised of carbon-based molecules. Chemist Wendy Shaw from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) spearheaded a collaborative effort to create a new roadmap aimed at reducing emissions in sectors that are challenging to electrify. The framework involves exploring non-carbon based fuels, identifying non-fossil sources of carbon, and ensuring that carbon remains in circulation through multiple utilization of each carbon atom. The vision is for a circular economy where carbon is continuously reused, either within the same industry or as a feedstock for new sectors.

The roadmap emphasizes the importance of transitioning from a linear model where carbon is used only once to a circular model where carbon atoms are reused multiple times. This shift necessitates the development of innovative solutions like polymer upcycling processes and efficient reuse of carbon-based materials. PNNL Director Steven Ashby stresses the need for creativity and collaboration to achieve decarbonization objectives. The roadmap was conceived during a workshop titled “Closing the Carbon Cycle,” facilitated by several prominent national laboratories, highlighting the significance of cross-institutional partnerships in driving transformative innovations towards achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

Unlocking the Potential of Carbon-Free Fuels

While hydrogen and ammonia have emerged as promising carbon-free fuel alternatives, their widespread adoption faces challenges, particularly regarding storage and transportation costs associated with hydrogen. Efforts are underway to develop carrier molecules and materials that could facilitate safe and cost-effective hydrogen transport, aligning with the Department of Energy’s goal of producing renewable hydrogen at $1 or less per kilogram. Harnessing carbon from diverse sources is a pivotal aspect of the proposed strategy, recognizing the indispensable role of carbon in various critical industries. By integrating circular carbon cycling practices and leveraging sources such as biomass, food waste, and plastic waste, the goal is to transform carbon into a valuable and sustainable commodity within the economy.

Pioneering Solutions through Reactive Separations

An essential component of this transformative journey involves converting conventional waste materials into reusable resources. Implementing reactive separations, which combine chemical reactions with purifying separations, offers a practical pathway to efficiently convert non-fossil carbon streams. This integrated approach not only enhances the utilization of carbon but also fosters economic growth, educational opportunities, and job creation. Chemist Shaw emphasizes the need for fundamental advancements in science to support the development of integrated industrial processes, ushering in a new era of sustainable carbon management.

The roadmap envisages a future where carbon is not simply discarded but instead treated as a valuable and finite asset within a circular carbon economy. By embracing sustainable carbon sources and advocating for responsible carbon utilization practices, the vision of a zero-waste economy becomes attainable. The journey towards net-zero carbon emissions necessitates collaborative efforts, innovative solutions, and a fundamental shift in the way carbon is perceived and managed across diverse sectors.

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