University of Toronto chemists team up to tell us why we need not fear this small molecule

Geoffrey Ozin leans in close to his computer’s camera as he warms to his subject –- the many products that can be made with waste CO2 captured from industrial processes.

“Aspirin!” exclaims the University of Toronto materials chemist. “Polycarbonate plastics! Cement! Aviation fuel!”

Suddenly his smile widens and he reaches for something off screen.

“Look at this here,” says Ozin, lifting a bottle of clear liquid into view. “Vodka! There’s a company in Brooklyn, New York – Air Company – that is doing it.”

In his new book, The Story of CO2, he and co-author Mireille Ghoussoub show how we might drastically reduce CO2 emissions by rethinking recipes for chemical goods using this small molecule. They take readers on a tour of waste CO2-based products that are already commercially available, and those coming down the pipe.

In layman-friendly language, Ozin and Ghoussoub argue how and why we should consider CO2 as a resource, and urge policy-makers to add “carbon capture and use” to our other tools in the fight against catastrophic climate change.

Published by University of Toronto Press, the book imagines the carbon-neutral economy of the future and explores the natural history of C02 from the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago to today.

Scary molecule

Ozin hopes the book will give readers a better grasp of a “molecule we should not fear.”

“I think it’s important that people – non-experts – have an understanding that helps them make decisions about how to vote, what proposals to fund,” he says. “I’m interested in not just the basic science, but in seeing something useful come out of it.”

Ozin gives his co-author and former PhD student full credit for turning a potentially technical manuscript into an accessible and often entertaining read.

“As scientists, we are so narrowly focused,” says Ghoussoub. “When you write for a more general audience, you try to get a bigger picture and contextualize it.”

Ghoussoub, who defended her dissertation late last year on how to turn CO2 into methanol using a copper-vanadate catalyst, hopes to start a post-doc in materials science in the United States in the spring.

Knowing more about methanol than your average chemist, Ghoussoub makes a convincing argument in the book for the liquid alcohol’s potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

She points to Carbon Recycling International’s renewable methanol plant in Reykjavik, Iceland as a good example of an operation that is mindful of the local market, supply chain and infrastructure.

Unlike conventional methanol production, which uses synthesis gas from fossil fuels, the company’s process uses waste CO2 and H2 from the electrolysis of water. The electricity used to produce H2 is generated from Iceland’s geothermal-heating infrastructure, making the process completely fossil-fuel free.

“Methanol is so versatile,” she says. “If you can make methanol, you can make over 60 per cent of all feedstock chemicals. In terms of impact for the chemical industry, CO2 conversion to methanol would be a huge win and it’s already happening commercially in some places.”

Still, both Ghoussoub and Ozin are careful to point out that developing a closed loop for waste CO2 is not the answer to climate change, but rather, one of many answers. They suggest integrating carbon capture, storage and use with a renewable energy infrastructure can help meet, and maybe even surpass the Paris targets.

“We have a fossil-fuel industry in Canada that continues to be subsidized and there is a dying market globally for the product,” says Ghoussoub. “So, I wouldn’t advertise these solutions (in the book) as a silver bullet. They only work if we have renewably-generated electricity.”