Christopher Jones innovates technologies to capture and tame carbon dioxide

AAAS Fellow Christopher Jones | Marsha Walton

Growing up near Detroit, Georgia Institute of Technology chemical engineer Christopher Jones had automobiles in his DNA.

Even as a youngster playing with toy cars, he was driven to understand more about improving their performance: "I did multiple experiments to find statistics about what car was inherently faster than another. So even at a young age, I had a nerdy experimentalist side," he said.

That inquisitive young explorer got a huge boost when he took his first high school chemistry class.

"I had a really outstanding teacher who instilled in me love for chemistry and reinforced for me that I was in fact good at it," he said.

When you are a young person trying to find out who you are as an individual, that kind of encouragement can have a huge impact, he said.

Today, Jones is a leading chemical engineer at Georgia Tech, where his research on catalysis and carbon dioxide capture is making important new inroads in abatement technologies for greenhouse gases—not only from cars, but from the use of all fossil fuels.

He recently was elected a AAAS Fellow, and as associate vice president for research at Georgia Tech, he works to strengthen collaborations between faculty members and industry. Jones also is the founding editor- in- chief of a new interdisciplinary journal, ACS Catalysis, published by the American Chemical Society.

Among the various approaches for dealing with climate change, Jones believes that carbon capture as the only realistic way to lessen the effects of greenhouse gas, at least over the next century. Even if industrialized nations could quickly convert to electric cars, wind and solar power, he says, populations elsewhere simply can't afford those options.

"I believe that for the rest of my life, even though we are making great strides in renewable energy, the majority of the energy we use on earth will be from fossil fuels," he said. 

To lessen the damage of greenhouse gases to the planet, Jones is working on a variety of catalytic processes and technologies for effective carbon capture that could extend the use of coal and oil while mitigating their global impact. A majority of his recent work centers around coal. 

"If we capture the C02 from these coal-fired power plants—which is the easiest place to capture because they are large, single immobile sources—then we might be able to put the world in a position where we can prolong the use of fossil energy for another 100 or 200 years, while mitigating the negative impact on the overall climate," he said.

But there are still only a handful of carbon sequestration projects globally, because of cost, not safety. Research on efficient storage continues, because it may be necessary for hundreds, even thousands of years.

How does carbon capture work in coal plants? The exhaust of a coal plant produces C02 and water. Rather than directly discharging that exhaust into the atmosphere, the C02 passes through a filtration process that traps it while letting less harmful gases pass out into the atmosphere. The C02 is eventually released in a concentrated form, put in a pipeline, compressed, and pumped underground for storage.

"Today if you want to do this on a commercial scale, from a power plant on a really large scale, you'd pretty much have to use liquid amines, carbon nitrogen compounds. It's the only mature technology out there today," said Jones.

So Jones and his team are now working on a way to make this process more energy efficient, by using solids.

"A typical solid that you would use, silica, alumina, has a heat capacity that is significantly lower than that of water. You still need to heat it up but it takes less heat," he said.

The potential advantages to using solids are that they are much less corrosive, and they can be used many, many times. And so the more times you can cycle through, the more likely you are to have a cost effective process," he said.

Although carbon storage has been controversial, Jones says that experts in geophysics and geochemistry can now safely store C02, as long as rigorous site selection criteria are met. It's been done for more than 30 years in depleted oil and gas reservoirs, and efforts are under way to see if it can be done in other underground structures, such as saline formations and coal seams.

Jones also is working on the frontlines of a new field called "direct air capture," which only about a dozen people in the world are now exploring.

The technology allows for direct-air capture anywhere—not just at points of high-concentrations of CO2 such as power plants. Air-capture machines could be installed anywhere to "suck out" the carbon dioxide emissions from smaller sources, including cars, buses, airplanes, ships and even homes and farms. And those sources are responsible for more than half of the world's C02 problem.

If direct-air capture technologies are installed near the source, "we can get rid of the need to have pipelines of C02 going everywhere," he said.

Some environmental groups criticize carbon capture, saying it just prolongs the use of dirty fuels. Jones understands the concern but says it's a necessary approach.

"It would be great if the whole world could use greener energy, but honestly, to do that, we would have to wipe off half the human beings living on the planet in order to provide the power we need. I believe that carbon capture is an absolute necessity," he said.