Flexible Funding 2023: Jiacheng Sun, University of Edinburgh

An integrated strategy for long-term carbon sink and sustainable supercarpacitor material production

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Key facts about this Flexible Funding research project

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Institution: University of Edinburgh
Department: School of Geosciences
Start date: 1 October 2023
Principal investigator: Jiacheng Sun
Co-Investigators: Professor Ondrej Masek
Amount awarded by UKCCSRC: £10,000

Why is this research needed?

Microalgae, with their fast growth rate, minimal land requirement and low carbon footprint, offer significant potential for global climate mitigation through photosynthesis. Although the global production of microalgae biomass stands at 130,000 tonnes dry weight per annum, valued at approximately $2.8 Billion [1], a substantial portion of this biomass is currently utilised as animal feed, resulting in the eventual release of CO2 absorbed by the algae back into the atmosphere [2].

Additionally, the disposal of excess microalgae biomass contributes to the depletion of valuable metals and nutrients, leading to resource scarcity and eutrophication. Therefore, it is imperative to develop sustainable and cost-effective techniques that generate value-added by-products capable of carbon capture and profit generation. This research proposal aims to implement the Microalgae Biochar Supercapacitor Material (MBSM) as a novel approach to simultaneously address profitable material production, carbon capture and storage in the UK. The proposed methodology involves employing thermos-processing techniques, specifically pyrolysis, on microalgae cultured in photobioreactors to produce biochar materials for long-term atmospheric carbon capture.

[1] Rita, A., et al. “Current Status of the Algae Production Industry in Europe: An Emerging Sector of the Blue Bioeconomy.” Frontiers in Marine Science 7 (2021).

[2] Imen, S., et al. “Microalgal-Based Feed: Promising Alternative Feedstocks for Livestock and Poultry Production.” Journal of Animal Science and Biotechnology 12, no. 1 (2021): 76-76.

What is this research investigating?

The objective of this project is to establish a technology based on microalgae bioresources, aimed at sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide while simultaneously generating energy storage materials through the utilisation of biochar.

The research project will be divided into five distinct work packages (WPs).

In WP1, efficient cultivation and monitoring of microalgae species will be conducted in controlled photobioreactors, including wastewater and flue gas conditions.

Then, microalgae biochar material will be synthesised, and the mechanisms and optimal process condition will be investigated in WP2.

In WP3, the physicochemical properties of as-synthesised biochar material will be assessed and correlated with the electrochemical performance.

Simultaneously, in WP4, the valorisation of raw biochar material will be conducted to maximise its energy storage potential through chemical and morphological tuning, specifically, aromatic sulfonation and alkaline activation.

In WP5, laboratory results will be further utilised to a wide scenario through commercial modelling methods (Aspen Plus, UniSim Design, and SimaPro), aiming to examine the carbon capture potential and environmental impact through a pilot-scale simulation in the UK. A workshop is planned in Edinburgh to disseminate the findings.

What does the research hope to achieve?

The outcomes of the MBSM research project can be extended to other feedstocks such as agricultural residues and plastic wastes, which also possess carbon capture and storage potential. By exploring the carbon capture and profit generation capabilities of microalgae biochar, this research will contribute to the development of sustainable and economically viable techniques for mitigating climate change and addressing resource depletion.

The multidisciplinary nature of the research will facilitate collaboration and knowledge exchange among experts from various fields, leading to significant academic advancements. Academic beneficiaries of the project include Early Career Researchers (ECRs) and MSc Students on the Programme Environmental Sciences at University of Edinburgh (UoE).  UoE academics will also greatly benefit, with the project building upon the previous research work conducted by Dr Dimitri Mignard and his colleagues. The project’s outcomes will further advance UoE’s research on algae, supporting ongoing and future studies in the field. Additionally, the project will facilitate collaborations with other investigators, leading to shared learning and research opportunities.

Collaborators such as Dr Javier Fermoso from the Madrid Institute for Advanced Studies and Professor Stina Jansson from Umeå University will also benefit from the project’s results through published papers and participation in workshops. These collaborations will foster knowledge exchange, enable the dissemination of research findings, and contribute to the advancement of their respective research groups.

Research outputs

This research is ongoing. Outputs will be shared below as they become available.