An overview of Argonne’s lab-wide effort to create a carbon-free economy.
Reducing carbon dioxide emissions and removing them from the atmosphere are critical to the global fight against climate change. Called decarbonization, it is one of the focal points in the nation’s strategy to ensure a bright future for our planet and all who live on it.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory has been at the forefront of the quest to decarbonize the U.S. economy for decades.
Argonne scientists are developing new materials for batteries and researching energy efficient transportation and sustainable fuels. They are expanding carbon-free energy sources like nuclear and renewable power. Argonne researchers are also exploring ways to capture carbon dioxide from the air and from industrial sources, use it to produce chemicals, or store it in the ground.
The ultimate goal? To reduce the greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere and warm the planet.
One mission: fewer emissions
“Creating a carbon-free global economy will require dramatic changes to business-as-usual practices,” said Argonne senior scientist Troy Hawkins, who leads the Fuels and Products Group of Argonne’s Systems Assessment Center.
“Our goal is to inform the changes needed to meet the nation’s goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050,” he explained. “Changes are needed across the economy, from transportation to agriculture. Argonne is making strides in all these areas and more.”
“Creating a carbon-free global economy will require dramatic changes to business-as-usual practices.” — Troy Hawkins, Argonne senior scientist
Because vehicles that burn fossil fuels are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, Argonne scientists are working to put electric vehicles on the road, in a big way.
A pioneer in battery technologies that power today’s electric vehicles, Argonne is leading the race to build better batteries that will pave the path toward a clean energy future. The Lab’s scientists are using advanced techniques, such as artificial intelligence, to better understand future requirements and design cheaper, more efficient, more flexible batteries.
Another way to cut down on the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is to recycle it. Argonne has a long history of developing methods to convert carbon dioxide into useful chemicals, which could lead to deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. But the process is challenging.
In 2021, Argonne scientists developed a catalyst made from copper and carbon that converts carbon dioxide directly into ethanol. This new synthetic ethanol could be used as a component of sustainable transportation fuel or a common chemical in a wide range of industrial applications.
The conversion process takes place inside of a special electrolyzer, a system that uses electricity to break down carbon dioxide to form chemicals. Developed by Argonne senior chemist Di-Jia Liu, this system runs at low temperature and pressure with short startup time. That means it can be powered by low-cost but intermittent electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar.
A $2 million DOE grant awarded to Argonne and three partners will fund the next step: developing a prototype of the system over three years. The team is also working on other ways to convert carbon dioxide into different chemicals, including ethylene, an essential component of the world’s most commonly used plastic.
Advances in soil carbon storage
Carbon stored in the soil — which accounts for two to three times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere — is another focus for Argonne scientists. They are studying the composition and dynamics of soil to help predict how changes in the amount of organic carbon held in soils could speed, or slow, the rate of global warming.
In 2021, Argonne scientists and partners produced the first high-resolution maps of soil organic carbon storage for permafrost regions in the Northern Hemisphere. These maps suggest that more organic carbon occurs closer to the surface than previously thought, making it more vulnerable to warming. The thawing of these regions could unleash enormous amounts of greenhouse gases, potentially speeding the warming of the Earth.
“Keeping frozen soil carbon in the ground is critical for slowing the rate of global warming,” said Julie Jastrow, an Argonne ecologist and soil scientist. “But to do this, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.”
Nuclear energy could play a large role
Argonne scientists are also making advances in nuclear energy, which produces more electricity on less land than any other clean energy source. Commercial nuclear reactors, many of which evolved from Argonne designs and experiments, supply nearly 20% of total U.S. electricity.
Nuclear power is not weather dependent and operates more than 93% of the time, making it the most reliable energy source in the country. Nuclear energy holds enormous potential for decarbonizing the U.S. electric grid, a scenario that has already been demonstrated by other countries.
Advanced small reactors, which offer numerous advantages over traditional reactors, are key to the future of nuclear energy, suggested Argonne principal nuclear engineer Nicolas Stauff. “Traditional reactors are 1,000 megawatts, while industry is developing smaller reactors in the 300-MW range and micro reactors in the 20-MW range,” he said.
Argonne is working with the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy and industrial partners on the design, analysis and modeling of small and micro reactors, which have clean energy potential for civilian and military applications.
For example, Argonne is partnering with reactor design companies TerraPower and X-energy to build two advanced nuclear reactors that can operate within seven years. The DOE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program funds the construction of the Natrium and Xe-100 reactors, in a cost sharing arrangement with industry.
Natrium is a fast reactor, a type of nuclear reactor that has the potential to deliver 100 times more energy per quantity of fuel and generate smaller amounts of waste than traditional reactors.
“Argonne pioneered the fast reactor technology,” Stauff said. “The plan is to build the Natrium reactor in Wyoming on the site of a former coal plant, replacing a carbon-intensive unit with a clean-energy unit.”
An electric grid for the future
“Putting more renewables on the grid is key to decarbonization,” said Sue Babinec, Argonne’s program lead for stationary storage.
Cost-effective long-duration energy storage will be key to reducing interruptions that occur with solar and wind energy. Long-duration storage holds very large amounts of energy for future use: 10-plus hours of power rather than the four to five hours that today’s batteries can hold.
Launched this year through the DOE’s Energy Earthshots Initiative, the Long Duration Storage Shot program set a target to reduce the cost of energy storage for the electric grid. Within the decade, they hope to see a cost savings of 90% for technologies that deliver 10-plus hours of power.
Argonne is also studying the role of hydrogen in long-duration storage.
Working with principal systems engineers Todd Levin and Audun Botterud and climate scientist Rao Kotamarthi, Babinec is exploring how the study of climate change can accurately predict the role long-duration storage will play on the electric grid of the future.
“Energy storage is critical to reducing the hazardous impacts of incidents, like California wildfires and freeze outs, like those in Texas, that can interrupt the energy supply chain,” Babinec said.
To achieve net-zero emissions, the nation needs a multifaceted approach that wastes no time in moving toward critical goals. Through a growing body of ambitious research, Argonne is charting a course for innovators, researchers and industry to follow toward a cleaner, sustainable, greener energy future.
Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.