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Capturing Carbon

Dr. Michael Katz is an assistant professor in chemistry at Memorial University of Newfoundland. One of the areas of research his research program is examining is studying porous materials that can capture and separate carbon dioxide (CO2) and other molecules that contribute to climate change. Back in May, he and his research group received over half a million in funding through Petroleum Research Newfoundland & Labrador (PRNL) to  reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the offshore oil and gas sector.

Dr. Katz has been studying these materials, called metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), since 2015 at Memorial, but six months ago he gained a new, far more important role —Dad.

And parenthood has shone a whole new light on the importance of his research.

“I’ve got a daughter who’s going to live to, ideally, 120- years old. That is a long time for the environment to change. From a purely selfish point of view, I need to make sure that is as least changed as possible,” Dr. Katz said during an interview.

The funding for this research was made possible through PRNL as a component of the Offshore research, development, and demonstration emissions reduction fund out of Natural Resources Canada (NRCan).  PRNL is the leading facilitator of research, technology development and innovation for Canada’s offshore oil and gas sector.

This project is studying porous materials, called metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), and its potential to separate carbon dioxide from exhaust. Dr. Katz, his researchers, and the technical services team at Memorial, are finding a way to weave their material into a polymer or membrane that could eventually be retrofitted into exhaust systems across offshore oil and gas industry.

Dr. Katz explained the chemistry behind the invention as: “Similar to those coin separators where you dump in all your coins and shake it around and it all gets sorted for you. Air is essentially just a bunch of different sized coins. Nitrogen is your nickel, CO2 is a dime, methane is a quarter and so on.”

Inventing by accident

This discovery came about, almost by accident, during a different project he was working on, which had previously benefitted from the support of Springboard and our members at the Technology Transfer and Commercialization Office (TTCO).

It was during that project, which was focusing on nitrogen molecules, that they learned NO2 didn’t quite “fit” with the material. So, he and his research team, which, for this summer, is comprised of nearly a dozen undergrad and grad students, approached the problem from a new angle.

“I was at Mount Allison at Science Atlantic Chem Con, listening to a talk, and something clicked. I texted one of my students to change one thing about their testing, at this point they had done about 300 tests, and lo and behold- there was new results! But they were not quite what we expected them to be. It seemed to only adsorb CO2 and exclude larger gases exceptionally well.”

Ecosystem Support

To help get this research to the point where it is at today, Dr. Katz worked closely with Kara Strickland, one of our members at Memorial’s TTCO, who suggested he take his NO2 research through the Lab2Market Oceans program.

“Part of that was just determining if the market cares and really got us thinking more about finding a solution for exhaust adsorption. That’s the beauty of chemistry, or any science really, you could be focusing on one separate project and another in parallel and not see how they could be related. A lot of the time, good ideas are serendipitous.”

By utilizing the Springboard network, Dr. Katz was able to advance this serendipitous idea and land this funding opportunity with PRNL.

“Springboard needs to exist in Atlantic Canada. It allows us to find a way to build companies and organizations right here in the region. As researchers it’s easy to come up with an idea, but we couldn’t build upon these ideas and turn it into something real without someone looking out for a way to get it to industry.”

Looking forward

The Katz Research Group has proven this material can adsorb and filter CO2 from exhaust effectively in a lab and on a molecular level, so now he and his team are figuring out how to build that material into an actual filtering device.

Dr. Katz also feels that this discovery has great potential to work in tandem with similar CO2 capture research already happening across the country. He knows gas adsorption technology presents a number of opportunities for industries aiming to reduce their carbon footprint and thinks that this technology can make a real impact through collaborative efforts.

After the year is over, he and his team hope to have a finalized product or process that they could present to an industry partner or launch a startup.

“A few of my students are quite passionate about the idea of taking this further,” Dr. Katz said.

“You never know which solution will lessen our environmental impact. But if we can capture some of the CO2 before it goes into the environment maybe, 120 years later, my daughter can look back and think—‘oh, well it’s not as bad as they said it was going to be.’ ”