Roadmap to close the carbon cycle: A holistic approach to reach net-zero carbon emissions across the economy

Carbon use graphicA major approach to achieving net-zero carbon emissions relies on converting various parts of the economy, such as personal vehicles and heating, to run via electricity generated from renewable sources. But carbon cannot be removed from all parts of society. Plastics, ubiquitous in the modern world, cannot be decarbonized because they are made of carbon-based molecules.

Led by chemist Wendy Shaw of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), a multi-institutional effort has produced a new roadmap to reducing emissions in hard-to-electrify segments of the economy. The multifaceted approach includes developing non-carbon fuels, finding non-fossil sources of carbon, and keeping carbon in play once it enters the cycle, ideally resulting in multiple uses of each carbon atom.

Single-use carbon can no longer be widespread, the roadmap authors assert. The carbon must be kept in play through a circular economy where each carbon atom is used numerous times. The carbon can be reused within the same industrial sector or act as a feedstock for a new industrial sector. For instance, developing polymer upcycling processes and efficiently reusing carbon-based materials will be central to a net-zero carbon emissions future.

“We need novel and creative solutions to realize our decarbonization goals,” said PNNL Director Steven Ashby. “And collaboration is key to accelerating the use-inspired scientific research in catalysis and separations science that will underpin these solutions. I eagerly await these results and their deployment in aviation, heavy duty trucking, and marine transportation.”

The ideas emerged from a workshop on “Closing the Carbon Cycle,” jointly hosted by PNNL, Ames National LaboratoryArgonne National LaboratoryBrookhaven National LaboratoryLawrence Berkeley National LaboratoryOak Ridge National Laboratory, and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. Leads from each laboratory included Shaw, James Morris, Max Delferro, Sanjaya Senanayake, Francesca Toma, Michelle Kidder, and Simon Bare, respectively.

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