Working Toward a Zero Emissions Future

Matteo Pasquali

Rice’s Carbon Hub, one of the exciting research initiatives that will be housed in the new Engineering and Science Building, seeks to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions and transition to a green energy system. Achieving this goal will require responsible methods of generating clean energy that can power vehicles, homes and businesses, as well as innovative ways of creating sustainable materials to build buildings, manufacture new technologies and grow healthy food to feed a global population.

The difficulty inherent in achieving a zero emissions future is that “many of the avenues we are pursuing to reduce the impact of carbon dioxide make one thing better, while in the process making something else worse,” reflects Matteo Pasquali, the A.J. Hartsook Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and director of Carbon Hub. Take electric cars, for example. “If we go from an internal combustion engine to an electric engine, we eliminate emissions from the car. But we have to generate more electricity, and if we use coal or natural gas to do so, we may actually end up with the same amount of emissions or more.” Even if we use renewable energy sources like solar or wind to produce the electricity required to power these vehicles, the construction of electric cars requires larger amounts of materials, such as copper and aluminum that are high offenders in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, and loss of land to mining.

To pursue sustainability in a way that accounts for the complicated web connecting energy, materials and industrial manufacturing requires a more holistic approach. Until now, the conversation about energy transitions has focused on shifting away from a reliance on oil and natural gas. But what if we could generate clean energy and reduce carbon dioxide emissions in materials and manufacturing by simply using hydrocarbons in a new way?

This bold proposition drives the work being done at Carbon Hub. Instead of burning hydrocarbons, Pasquali explains, we can split the hydrogen and carbon atoms that make up hydrocarbon molecules, which allows us to simultaneously harvest clean hydrogen energy and create sustainable carbon-based materials that have a high use value and low environmental footprint. These new carbon materials are strong, flexible and versatile. “Because of the chemistry of carbon and the advances we've seen in nanotechnology,” says Pasquali, “we now know that we can make materials from carbon that are as good as, and in many cases better than, metals and other construction materials.”

In simple terms, changing the way we use hydrocarbons could revolutionize our approach to sustainability. “It really hits everything we want,” summarizes Pasquali. “We create better materials that have a lower footprint compared to the alternatives. They are lighter, so they can also give us more efficient vehicles and buildings. We get hydrogen as a byproduct, which means we don't have to waste or consume other resources to produce a highly desirable clean energy source.”

The potential applications of new carbon materials are wide-ranging and exciting. Pasquali and his team, for instance, are investigating the use of natural gas-derived carbon fibers to make electrodes for wearable electronics, which can be used to monitor health and vital signs. Their most recent invention is a T-shirt that can measure heart rate and take an EKG. They are also experimenting with the use of carbon fibers to create more durable electrical wires that could, among other uses, improve aviation safety.

In addition to Pasquali’s team, scientists from Rice and other institutions are collaborating in fields spanning materials science, engineering, earth sciences, architecture and more to explore new forms and uses of sustainable carbon materials. Their work has transformative implications for everything from biomedical nanotechnology that addresses human health at the cellular level, to the design and construction of buildings, to the creation of synthetic grade biochar that can limit the use of fertilizer and improve soil viability in large scale agriculture.

“Some people call this a silver bullet,” Pasquali remarks with a chuckle. “I call it a carbon bullet.” He emphasizes that while the technology is promising, there are challenges still to be addressed. The process of converting carbon into high-quality materials has been well-established, but “what we don’t know how to do yet is make these materials efficiently,” a problem Pasquali and his team are actively addressing.

Still, Pasquali is optimistic about Carbon Hub’s prospects, comparing the research on carbon materials with the development of solar power. “Back in the 1970s, we didn't know if solar could ever become cheap and efficient enough to compete with oil and gas. And then all of a sudden, ten years ago, it happened. With carbon materials, we’re already closer to the goal.”

In addition to cutting-edge cross-disciplinary research that will enable the next leaps forward in green energy and technology, Pasquali and his colleagues are engaged in partnerships that span academia, industry, public education and policymaking. The new Engineering and Science Building will strengthen this work, providing unparalleled opportunities for collaboration that can extend Carbon Hub’s research beyond the lab and ensure Rice’s place at the forefront of the energy transition and environmentally responsible technology innovation.

To learn more about supporting Carbon Hub or Rice’s new Engineering and Science Building, contact your development officer or Sara L. Rice, senior director of development, at 713-348-3189 or