Algal Energy and Limestone Carbon Capture

AELCC is an economically sustainable, carbon negative, biomass energy solution that removes CO2 from the atmosphere while generating energy.

Photo of Shashwat Viswanath
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Please confirm you meet the following criteria

  • We have submitted the supplemental form linked in the description above
  • We are aged between 14 - 20 as of February 11, 2021
  • We live in the United States or its territories (Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa)
  • We are not employed by, or directly related (parents or siblings) to a current General Motors (GM) or Ashoka employee
  • We have been working on this project for at least three months
  • We consent to Ashoka and/or GM featuring our work on their website, social media, and in other materials regarding this Challenge using the information in our application
  • We confirm we have the rights to use and share any content uploaded on this entry form

Date You Started Your Project

06/17/2020

Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Start-Up (first few activities have happened)

1. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

Carbon emission rates have surpassed 30 billion metric tons per year. A problem of this magnitude could result in a 5°C increase of average global temperatures by 2100 and a sea level rise of over 50 meters, eradicating cities like New York, Tokyo, and Sydney by 2120. Our ultimate goal is to contribute our part in preventing this future. By doing so, we can prevent the Sixth Mass Extinction from occurring.

2. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

We propose a carbon-negative solution that not only addresses the primary downsides of current carbon capture technologies but also generates energy efficiently. Our motion consists of three phases. Phase 1 consists of a process utilizing an algae farm as the source of carbon capture. Dead algae are burned to release highly concentrated CO2 gas and energy. In simplified terms, phase 2 revolves around separating the CO2 obtained in phase 1 from air molecules by bubbling air dense with CO2 into lime water (Ca(OH)2 + H2O) to create limestone (CaCO3)—a highly effective carbon sequestering medium which can serve as permanent carbon storage. Phase 3 involves engineering an economically viable tool that continues the carbon-capture cycle present in the first two phases. (See illustration). Algae, unlike crops and trees, reproduce quickly and have high population densities. Limestone, a permanent storage for carbon, can be sold to the construction industry, as it is an aggregate for cement, road base, and railroad ballast. This combination of carbon-negative energy generation and limestone production allows our solution to be both environmentally sustainable as well as economically viable.

3. Please tell us how you are using science, technology, engineering or math to address your environmental challenge.

To combat the climate crisis, we will conduct experiments that gauge the optimal conditions for carbon-dioxide consumption and limestone formation. Our experimentation will take place at the Mass Spectrometry Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where Shashwat will work to conclude the feasibility of phase 2. With the results of Shashwat’s experiments, Kevin and Pavan will run computational simulations that will provide insight regarding the economic viability of our motion, its efficiency, and its impact in the long run. These simulations will adjust the temperature, pH, nutrients, among other factors, to maximize energy generation and carbon removal. We will implement a differential equation model that predicts the efficiency of our proposed carbon capture solution. In addition to engineering simulations, we will write a web application to provide updates in our research and development. This will also serve as the foundation for our outreach programs. Our vision is highly reliant on the interwoven industries of STEM: from machine learning and algorithmic modeling, to computational and microbiology, all the way to mechanical, energy, and systems engineering.

4. Personal Journey: What’s the story behind why you decided to start this project?

The Lorax engendered our research: the imminent, yet seemingly ignored, destruction of habitats and the extinction of millions of wildlife species brought climate change to our attention at a young age. Understanding that our environment was under threat, we decided to take action, speaking with professionals in the field and completing classes in high school and college related to the environment. We conducted research independently, learning about positive feedback loops and the melting ice caps through online articles, about carbon capture and sequestration through research papers, and about the chemistry and physics underlying climate change through Professor George Crabtree from Argonne National Labs. Our weekly discussions with Dr. Crabtree helped fuel our vision of a future, one where no one must worry about whether later generations will have a world to live in.

5. Video (Keep it simple, your phone on selfie-mode is great): Please upload a 1-minute video to YouTube that answers the following “I am stepping up to be a Changemaker because...”

6. Please highlight the key activities you have carried out to bring your project to life.

We’ve conducted an extensive literature review and have identified, analyzed, and calculated the efficiencies of a promising, industry-novel reaction for carbon sequestration -- we project a >90% efficiency in the carbonation process. In light of these promising projections, we’ve reached out to the director of UIUC’s mass spectrometry lab and are planning on beginning research in a few months. Also, we’re in close correspondence with Dr. Crabtree, a senior scientist at ANL, who is our mentor.

7. The X Factor: What is different about your project compared to other programs or solutions already out there?

Other methods of removing carbon from the atmosphere—Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) and Direct Air Capture (DAC)—are expensive and extremely land and energy intensive. They lack long-term economic viability without large government subsidies and are forced to remain carbon neutral by selling the captured carbon dioxide as hydrocarbons to be burned as fuel. Our project is an economically feasible solution that creates electricity, doesn't require much land, and provides for long-term carbon storage. It’s a solution that can be scaled and can be built upon pre-existing infrastructure.

8. Impact: In the last three months, please detail the impact your project has made.

We are currently in the idea and review stage. Because of this, we have focused the past three months primarily on conducting our literature reviews, meta-analyses, and lab procedures in order to prepare for wet lab research. Once our solution is developed, our primary measurements for impact are millions of tons of carbon dioxide captured per day, megawatt-hours of electricity generated per day, and metric tons of limestone produced per day. We’re also interested in whether or not we can generate enough electricity and limestone in order to at least break even and maintain enough economic viability to remain financially sustainable as an independent entity. Our final metric, a social one, revolves around measuring the amount of people we’ve impacted through our planned grassroots outreach programs designed to educate students about the carbon capture and clean energy industries.

9. What’s Next: What are your ideas for taking your project to the next level?

Within the next year, we plan on raising funds and applying for grants in order to fund our research at the Mass Spectrometry Lab at UIUC as well as conducting the research itself. Our carbon sequestration research alone will encompass and take into account 9 different environmental variables such as temperature, pressure, and solution acidity. After conducting substantial research and verifying that our >90% efficiency projections are accurate when extrapolated into larger volumes, we will begin construction of the first prototype to our system. Along the journey to our first prototype, we will coordinate educational outreach programs and newsletters—attempting to get as many people as possible onboard with our idea for the future!

10. Please share how you have influenced other young people to get involved in your project and/or care about environmental sustainability.

We have developed a two-pronged approach: teach and explain. We make it our goal to ensure that our peers view climate change as the largest global issue and to illustrate concepts including positive feedback loops and the possibility of a Sixth Mass Extinction. To further detail the impacts of climate change, we also elaborate to our friends and family about the consequences of rising sea level and extreme weather, citing studies that we have researched to commence our project.

11. How would you partner with other changemakers to make a difference?

We plan to reach out to other changemakers through our outreach program and interact with student-researchers that are passionate about the field. We are both happy and willing to add other Changemakers to our team! Currently, we are looking for people that have experience with microbiology to assist us with the algae cultivation and its photosynthetic processes. We would also like to discuss the strategies and economics of our project with industry professionals.

12. How would you engage others who have never heard about your project to get their buy-in?

Anyone intrigued in the project can email us at officialaelcc@gmail.com, and we can set up a Zoom call with said party. With a proposal-oriented presentation that we have prepared, we would summarize our idea as a whole and allow them to decide whether their goals align with ours. If they show continued interest, we would ask them what skills and experiences they possess. Finally, we would determine if they would be a valuable asset for this project, deciding their role based on their skills.

13. Finances: If applicable, have you mobilized any of the following resources so far?

  • Friend support
  • Family support
  • Mentors/advisors

14. Which of the following types of expertise would be most useful for you? You’ll be able to select only one option.

  • Research

Are you employed, or directly related (grand-parents, parents, sibling) to a GM or Ashoka employee?

  • No

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Recommended by others

Referral: If you discovered the Challenge thanks to an organization or person other than Ashoka or General Motors, who was it?

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Photo of Sophia Pryor
Team

This such an interesting and creative idea for carbon capture and sequestration! I applaud your commitment to the cause. I hope the experimentation phase of the project goes well and I encourage you to continue to engage with other young changemakers to share ideas and maximize impact! Also -the more you know about what technology is already out there and industry needs, the better you'll be able to scale and mobilize the project so I recommend continuing to research and starting to engage with industry experts while performing the wet lab work. Keep up the great work!