Drug design tools drive materials discovery for carbon capture



A molecular representation of the carbon capture material AL-PMOF

Chemical engineers from Heriot-Watt University have helped design new materials that can capture carbon dioxide from industrial emissions better than current commercial materials, as reported in the journal Nature today (12 December). 

The Heriot-Watt engineers collaborated with a team of international researchers to design the materials , which will help the UK achieve its net zero greenhouse gas emissions target by 2050. 

Dr Susana Garcia, associate director of Heriot-Watt's Research Centre for Carbon Solutions (RCCS), said: “The anthropogenic emission of the greenhouse gas CO2 into the atmosphere is the single most important factor contributing to climate change. 

“Large CO2 emitters include power plants and industrial processes, so it's critical that we develop new materials that can capture this greenhouse gas in an economically viable way.” 

The team was inspired by drug design tools used by the pharmaceutical industry and meant the researchers could synthesise new metal-organic framework materials (MOFs) that can capture CO2 successfully. 

MOFs are porous crystals that are made from combining metal nodes with organic linkers.

The RCCS team conducted experiments that mimicked real industrial operations and compared the performance of their new materials with those that are currently commercially available. 

Dr Garcia said: “The exciting part of this work is that it completely changes the way we do research.

“Instead of the conventional trial and error, we computer-generated 325,000 MOFs and identified the features of the best performers.

“The impact of this work is transformative. We now have the tools to tailor-make a material that will separate carbon dioxide in the most economical way for a given source, like industrial emissions, and make it available for other purposes like carbon storage or as a resource for the chemical industry. 

“These tools will become increasingly important as decarbonising industry in the UK has become an important focus of the government, and the progress we make can be exported internationally.” 

Dr Enrique García-Díez, postdoctoral researcher at RCCS adds: “When we experimentally verified that our materials outperformed current commercial ones, I realized we had achieved something truly remarkable.” 

Prof Mercedes Maroto-Valer, associate principal of global sustainability at Heriot-Watt University and director of RCCS, said: “Reducing CO2 emissions is one of the most important responsibilities of our generation. 

“RCCS is a pioneering research centre for advancing the wider deployment of carbon solutions required to meet our global challenges. This research is an example of radical innovation and of Heriot-Watt's commitment to a sustainable future.”   

The research was reported today in Nature: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1798-7


Sarah McDaid

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