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New research centre to help solve the climate crisis

A new, unique research centre has been launched. The Novo Nordisk Foundation CO2 Research Center is to be established with a grant of DKK 630 million from the Novo Nordisk Foundation (NNF) and based at Aarhus University. The new centre will ensure cross-disciplinary collaboration to reduce the amount of the greenhouse gas, CO2, in the atmosphere through researching and implementing new technology. The centre will be collaborating with a number of Danish and international partners.

One of the most important global challenges of the modern era is to curb climate change, and the resulting upheavals facing society in the coming decades. CO2, a greenhouse gas, is a key factor in climate change, and if we are to make any real difference in curbing global temperature increases, simply reducing CO2 emissions will not be enough. We have to actually remove CO2 from the atmosphere and reuse it in products that are today based on carbon extracted from fossil fuels such as oil and coal.

The Novo Nordisk Foundation CO2 Research Center will be a new international mission-driven research centre, established with a grant of DKK 630 million from the Novo Nordisk Foundation. The centre will be based at Aarhus University, with its world-class research environment within disciplines relevant for the CO2 problem, including in particular, chemistry and life sciences. From 2022, the centre will tackle the complex task of mitigating the effects and rate of climate change by generating fundamental science for scalable technologies that can reduce, capture, and convert CO2.

Rector at Aarhus University, Brian Bech Nielsen, welcomes the grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation warmly:

"Firstly I’d like to thank the Novo Nordisk Foundation for giving us this unique opportunity to bring so many Danish and international researchers together with the purpose of setting up a strong international research center with sky-high ambitions. For our society it is essential that we use our deep knowledge and strong research capacity to scrutinise the potential for mitigating the amount of CO2. We must change our behaviour – the big question is how? And how fast? This immense societal challenge call for research, technology development and not least interdisciplinary collaboration, which is the spirit of this centre. It will become a global centre of excellence and I have great expectations for this initiative", says Brian Bech Nielsen.

Aarhus University will work in close collaboration with six satellite institutions: the University of Copenhagen, the Technical University of Denmark, Stanford University, the University of Tromsø, the University of Tübingen and the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research. There will also be collaboration with a number of industrial partners and other national and international universities.

The Moon landing

The centre is mission-driven, meaning that all of the researchers affiliated with the centre will be working on one common overall mission to find ways to reduce climate-problematic CO2, not only by reducing emissions, but also by removing it from the atmosphere. A multidisciplinary approach within life sciences, systems analysis, and chemistry will be necessary to achieve this goal.

The internationally recognised Professor Alfred Spormann will be starting at Aarhus University as the centre director from January 2022. During his career, Professor Spormann has been employed at Stanford University in the US, where he conducted research into microbiological and biochemical mechanisms that can transform and convert the molecular building blocks in carbon dioxide.

The mission-driven element in the centre's structure is crucial for the new centre director, because it must be possible to scale up the solutions found at the centre and implement them quickly in society, not just in theory - rather like another mission from the history books.

"The mission of this centre can be compared with the mission of NASA preceding the lunar landing in 1969. At that time, the fundamental sciences and technologies that were developed had to take us a step closer to the lunar landing. This philosophy is not unlike that behind our own mission: to tackle the 38 gigatonnes CO2 emitted globally every year. This is the challenge for our ‘lunar landing’, and we have to find scalable solutions within just a few years that can help to reduce carbon emissions as well as capture and recycle CO2. This means that the centre's mission will govern the research we carry out," explains Alfred Spormann.

Build a car out of carbon dioxide

Every household produces roughly 7.5 to of CO2 per year. It doesn’t disappear, it just piles up on top of what is already there. This metaphorical carbon comes from many different sources, such as energy consumption, transport, food production and heating. In other words, not from any particularly wasteful or extravagant indulgence, but simply from living a modern life with the standard of living we have come to expect.

No matter what technology the centre finds, it has to be scalable and convertible into the real world. The centre will therefore collaborate with industry and relevant policy-makers to ensure that the solutions developed are scalable and can be implemented, including in a Danish context. One example of a solution the centre will investigate is the possibility of producing plastic made from CO2. This will be by processing captured CO2 using bacteria and electrochemistry, and the solution will make it possible to replace fossil ingredients such as crude oil and coal in the production of plastics.

There are huge possibilities, and the path from idea to useful technology is unique for this centre.

"One element will be to change our traditional thinking of how we make and use materials in our every day life. Can we make new materials from CO2 for use as plastics, new types of fuel, or even metals. One thought I've been playing with is to challenge future students by asking them to make a complete car out of CO2. How can we rethink the way in which we produce the materials in a car to producing them from carbon dioxide?" says Professor Spormann.

Denmark as the focal point

This is the first time that the competencies have been consolidated across disciplines and internationally in order to forge a powerhouse working for a single, shared mission: to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. The ambition is for the centre to help set the course for the targeted international efforts required to tackle the global climate crisis.

The centre is anchored at Aarhus University. The close collaboration will be with six satellite institutions: the University of Copenhagen, the Technical University of Denmark, Stanford University, the University of Tromsø, the University of Tübingen and the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research. There will also be collaboration with a number of industrial partners and other national and international universities.

Initially, the research will build on research strengths at four centres and departments at Aarhus University: The Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Center (iNANO), the Department of Chemistry, the Department of Biological and Chemical Engineering, and the Department of Mechanical and Production Engineering.

The Novo Nordisk Foundation has given a seven-year grant totalling DKK 630 million to the centre, which will start work in autumn 2021 and officially open in January 2022.

About the Novo Nordisk Foundation centre

 The Novo Nordisk Foundation CO2 Research Center will have a multidisciplinary approach and be based on a mission to mitigate climate change by exploring and developing innovative technologies to capture, store and recycle CO2.

Research at the centre will be linked to four themes:

1.                         CO2 capture

2.                         Chemical CO2 conversions

3.                         Life science-based CO2 conversions

4.                         System analysis

From each their academic angles, the four themes support the centre's mission to explore and develop innovative technologies to capture, store and recycle CO2. The first three themes focus on developing the methods and technology to capture and recycle CO2, while the fourth theme will ensure that the centre's research and technology development are scalable and linked to the needs of society and provide insights that can be used as inspiration for legislative work, for example.

Initially, the centre will focus on CO2 capture from point sources such as industrial production plants and power stations. In order to avoid maintaining emissions of additional CO2 through fossil fuels, the centre will focus on capture from point sources powered by electricity from renewable energy. In the long term, the centre will also be working to develop methods to capture and process CO2 directly from the atmosphere. In this context, the researchers face a major challenge, as the methods are not yet as well-developed.

In this video it is possible to hear more about the focus of The Novo Nordisk Foundation CO2 Research Center.

Read more about the centre on the Novo Nordisk Foundation website.