Professor Geoffrey Ozin wins Connaught Global Challenge Award to lead University of Toronto Solar Fuels Cluster

March 9, 2016 by Mandy Koroniak

One of the most pressing global issues of our time is the threat of climate change, caused by human influence and in particular, the persistence of CO2 in the atmosphere. The United Nations is unequivocal in stating that continued warming of the climate will have widespread and profound impacts on all levels of society and the natural world.

It’s a challenge that Professor Geoffrey Ozin is addressing through the University of Toronto Solar Fuels Cluster, for which he was recently awarded the $1 million Connaught Global Challenge Award. This program, which made its first award in 2010, funds interdisciplinary work centred on meeting challenges facing global society.

The Solar Fuels Cluster is a collaborative and interdisciplinary research effort addressing the problem of CO2 conversion. The team, which includes not only Ozin’s research group in Chemistry but also groups in Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry and Materials Science & Engineering, is focused on the discovery and development of materials that can drive a CO2 conversion process to form transportable fuels.

Ozin envisions a future “carbon dioxide community,” where CO2 fuels the world just as we know it. Carbon capture and storage has been shown to be ineffective for reducing the problem of CO2 fixation – we simply cannot capture and store enough of it. The only answer is utilization. And if we can put it to good use, “it’s the largest chemical factory on earth,” says Ozin. Moreover, we have a world that runs on fuel. If the combustion engine could run on gasoline made from CO2, why would we change it?

Glen Murray, Minister of the Environment and Climate Change for the Province of Ontario, calls CO2 the “default molecule,” meaning that anything you burn begets CO2. While it’s bad news in terms of carbon fixation that our atmosphere has become flooded with this incredibly stable molecule, it’s good news in the sense that developing effective utilization strategies for CO2 means tapping into an inexhaustible resource. “It will be safe, renewable, it will stabilize the climate problem and improve the environment,” says Ozin, “and what's crazy, is it will give sustainability forever.”

When he first came to the problem, Ozin found that most people were addressing the problem by working in aqueous solutions. “I just thought,” says Ozin, “how are you going to scale megaton or gigaton processes in water?” So Ozin decided to approach the problem in the gas phase, which makes a great deal of sense in terms of practicality. “The chemical and petrochemical industries exist. Refineries exist. Gigantic reactors that work with hundreds of thousands of tonnes of materials exist and 99.9% of them use gases interacting with solids. It's called heterogeneous catalysis.” It was the field that Ozin connected to in the early years of his career, working on metal-atom metal-cluster chemistry and catalysis. In this sense, after a 45-year career spanning birth and development of nanochemistry, his work has come full circle.

The team, which was initially supported through funding from the Province of Ontario, has already identified a promising series of nanostructured solar fuel materials, and developed appropriate research methodologies and established the instrumental facilities for their structure characterization, property measurements and catalytic testing. The support from the Connaught Global Challenge Award enables the team to continue this important work.

Ozin says this effort is timely in more ways than one. “I had this crazy vision. It just seemed the right vision at the right time in my career before I became CO2!”

Ode to CO2

Oh small molecule
Friend or foe
To love or to hate
To understand you better
Before it’s too late
And we all become CO2

Geoffrey Ozin