ISU engineers create panel to advance a carbon negative economy

By Iowa State University | November 11, 2011

A national panel led by Iowa State University engineers is launching an effort to research and develop technologies that capture, use and sequester carbon while enhancing food production, ecosystems, economic development and national security.

The 33-member National Panel for a Carbon Negative Economy recently met for the first time in Chicago. Participants represented universities, companies, federal agencies and nongovernmental agencies, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, ConocoPhillips, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the International Biochar Initiative.

“Our goal is to help develop an intellectual framework for this new field and help move it forward,” said Robert C. Brown, the leader of the carbon negative project, an Anson Marston Distinguished Professor in Engineering, the Gary and Donna Hoover Chair in Mechanical Engineering and the Iowa Farm Bureau Director of Iowa State's Bioeconomy Institute.

The panel meets at least twice a year with the next meeting scheduled for May 2012. Potential next steps include preparing a white paper detailing key aspects of a carbon negative economy, presenting the concept at professional conferences and in high-profile scientific journals, bringing the idea to federal agencies and private foundations, and continuing joint activities that strengthen the collaborations initiated at the first meeting of the national panel.

Iowa State’s Initiative for a Carbon Negative Economy is one of three projects that each received three-year, $500,000 grants from the College of Engineering. The grants from the Dean’s Research Initiatives program were announced in March and allow teams of faculty members to build interdisciplinary, public-private research partnerships that can successfully compete for multimillion dollar research projects while also sparking economic development and spinning off new technologies. The grant program is also supporting teams building partnerships and projects in computational biology and wind energy.

“This National Panel for a Carbon Negative Economy is a great example of the partnerships and research programs we’re building with the Dean’s Research Initiatives,” said Jonathan Wickert, dean of Iowa State’s College of Engineering. “These initiatives are advancing the college’s research mission in areas where we have comparative advantages. And they’re putting science and technology to work to help Iowa, and the world, meet the challenges of the 21st century.”

One of those challenges is not only reducing emissions of greenhouse gases but also removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Brown and his colleagues think they have a solution: “Our proposal envisions a carbon negative economy, which goes beyond current efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, by adopting a strategy of actively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” says the project’s proposal to the college. “This captured carbon is sequestered in soils, sediments, and oceans as part of the natural carbon cycle of the biosphere while supporting economic activities of human society.”

The objective, in other words, is “to develop technologies that take carbon out of the atmosphere and make money while doing it,” said Jill Euken, a member of the new panel and deputy director of industry and outreach for Iowa State’s Bioeconomy Institute.

The initiative envisions fixing carbon from the atmosphere by growing cellulosic crops such as switchgrass and aquatic species such as microalgae. The harvested biomass would be thermochemically converted to a biocrude that can be used for transportation fuels, biobased chemicals or the generation of electricity. The thermochemical conversion also produces biochar, a carbon-rich solid similar to the charcoal produced in fires. Applying biochar to agricultural soils can sequester the carbon and boost soil fertility.

And now a national panel led by Iowa State engineers is working to advance that idea.

“The meeting helped the participants identify new opportunities for scholarship within and among our disciplines,” Brown said. “But this is more than an academic exercise. The concept of carbon negative economic activity may be the only practical way to reverse the flux of carbon between the geosphere and the atmosphere.”

The members, affiliations and specialties of the National Panel for a Carbon Negative Economy:

  1. David Addison, Virgin Earth Challenge, carbon sequestration
  2. Tom Allnutt, Phycal, algae
  3. Bruce Babcock, Iowa State University, agriculture economics and policy
  4. Bill Beavis, Iowa State University, plant science
  5. Robert  Brown, Iowa State University, thermochemical conversion
  6. Ken Cassman, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, cellulosic biomass production
  7. Jill Cornelis, Iowa State University, program assistant
  8. Alan Del Paggio, CRI Catalyst Co., catalysis
  9. Jill Euken, Iowa State University, industry liaison
  10. Thomas Foust, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, thermochemical conversion
  11. Dermot Hayes, Iowa State University, biochar and land use economics
  12. Doug Karlen, USDA/ARS, cellulosic biomass production
  13. Alan Knight, Virgin Earth Challenge, carbon sequestration
  14. Greg Kunkel, Tenaska, electric utilities
  15. David Laird, Iowa State University, agronomic application of biochar
  16. Johannes Lehman, Cornell University, biochar soil chemistry
  17. Scott McQueen, ConocoPhillips, renewable fuels
  18. Ken Moore, Iowa State University, cellulosic biomass production
  19. Mike Rocke, CoolPlanetBioFuels, pyrolysis biofuels and biochar
  20. Keith Paustian, Colorado State University, global carbon cycles
  21. Debbie  Reed, International Biochar Initiative, biochar production and utilization
  22. George  Roe, Boeing Research & Technology, airline industry
  23. Yuriy Roman, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, catalytic upgrading of biocrude
  24. Richard Sayre, Los Alamos National Laboratory, photosynthetic carbon metabolism
  25. Brent Shanks, Iowa State University, catalytic upgrading of biocrude
  26. Reyhaneh Shenassa, Metso, pyrolysis
  27. Daniel Schrag, Harvard University, biogeochemistry
  28. Seth Snyder, Argonne National Laboratory, catalytic upgrading of biocrude
  29. Martin Spalding, Iowa State University, photosynthetic carbon metabolism
  30. Paul Spindler, Catchlight Energy, renewable fuels
  31. Ken Vogel, USDA/ARS, cellulosic biomass production
  32. Michael Wang, Argonne National Laboratory, carbon life cycle analysis
  33. David Zilberman, University of California, Berkeley, energy economics and policy