On the cutting edge: Decarbonization

Research efforts aim for a sustainable society that goes beyond carbon ‘neutral’ to carbon ‘negative’

In October 2020, the Japanese government set an ambitious goal: ‘carbon neutrality by 2050.’ But can Japan achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions in a mere 30 years?

Kyushu University has the experience to face such a herculean task, thanks to its significant work in the field of renewable energy. But a more ambitious approach must be taken to assure a better future. Today, the university is spearheading efforts to accelerate the shift toward a more sustainable society—one that goes beyond carbon ‘neutral’ to carbon ‘negative.’

This eco-friendly future ultimately requires bringing together people from all walks of life—citizens, scientists, industry professionals, policymakers, and economic experts alike. By collaborating with the city of Fukuoka, the Kyushu region, and the world, the university is fostering the talent needed to build a survivable future for humanity.

A better way to capture carbon from thin air

Even if all carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions stopped today, it would still take decades for rising global temperatures to stabilize. So, what can be done?

For Shigenori Fujikawa the answer is clear: capture CO2 directly from the atmosphere through a process known as Direct Air Capture (DAC) and reuse it in a new carbon cycle.

Carbon capture has already been implemented in power plants and industrial factories to mitigate CO2 emissions. However, current processes use large amounts of liquid to capture the gas—requiring significant space, money, and energy. While separating gases using permeable membranes could be more efficient, few have considered it as only small amounts of gas can cross the membrane.

“For the past decade, we have been developing ultrathin membranes that can selectively filter CO2 with high gas permeability. The filter itself is only about 1/100th the thickness of plastic wrap,” Fujikawa explained. “Our goal is to implement these filters not only in the factory, but also at a scale where we can directly extract CO2 from the air and convert it into usable hydrocarbons.”

Imagine a future where every air conditioning unit is accompanied by a machine that captures the resulting CO2 and converts it into methane. In turn, the hydrocarbon powers the energy grid—and the air conditioner once again. “It’s a bold proposition, and there are many obstacles to be cleared, but this is the kind of future I hope my research will bring,” stated a bright-eyed Fujikawa.

Hailing the future of hydrogen

Some of the oldest parts of the sprawling Ito campus are the research centers focused on hydrogen energy. To say that hydrogen is a cornerstone of Kyushu University is no exaggeration.

“Our vision of the future is to develop the ultimate carbon neutral society,” explained Kazunari Sasaki, who has been a central figure in the university’s hydrogen energy research program since its founding.“We have a large team working to realize a future ‘Hydrogen Society,’ researching the fundamental methods of hydrogen production, storage, transport, and utilization.”

Over the last few years, Sasaki has been working with the business school to examine the models and infrastructure needed for this hydrogen society. At the same time, he is working with government ministries and local communities in policy development.

Sasaki recognizes that the path to a hydrogen society will take time, and he may not live long enough to see it. But thanks to the university’s fellowship programs that bring in talented researchers, the future looks promising.

“Half of my work now consists of raising the next generation of researchers. We have many promising students and researchers from all around the world. By providing funds, technology, and expertise, we want to continue facilitating their talents,” shared Sasaki. “If you want to change the world, come to Kyushu University.”

Driving into the future green economy

What do you see when you look at a car? It depends on what you know: a mechanic can tell you how the engine works, while a factory engineer can explain how the vehicle was put together. For Shigemi Kagawa, the same multi-faceted perspective applies to the current climate crisis.

As an economist, Kagawa views the solution to climate change through the lens of the dizzyingly complex global supply chain sustaining our current lifestyles. To that end, businesses and policymakers are looking to his research for insights into reducing their carbon footprint.

“As consumers, we are welded into the global supply chain, but its scale is ultimately unseen. Simply knowing how much CO2 or pollution a factory or country produces is not enough to make meaningful strides towards a sustainable future,” explained Kagawa.

For example, the steel that makes up a car’s body must be extracted from the earth, then refined, transported, and molded, all before arriving at the assembly line. Only by understanding and visualizing each link in the global supply chain—and how they interact with one another—can we begin implementing consequential actions that reduce emissions and waste.

“As we continue our research, we will gain better insights into country-level applications and incentives, as well as what local communities can do. The road to decarbonization may be complicated, but we can help pave the way,” concluded Kagawa.