Capturing climate change

05 Mar 2012

Author: Sam North

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A love of chemistry and a passion to find out about the world has taken Deanna D’Alessandro on a mighty journey from the cane fields of Cairns to the cutting edge of science. She is part of a research team that has picked up a $6 million grant to help develop an efficient, cost-effective solution to the problem of climate change.
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Growing up in Queensland’s tropical north, Deanna D'Alessandro used to marvel at the colours and textures of nature, at the flowers and vegetation of her home city of Cairns, at the intricate patterns and infinite wonder of the Great Barrier Reef.

Wide-eyed wonder in a child is one thing . . . wanting desperately to find out why is something that set her apart.

“I think I always wanted to know why things were the way they were in the world,” she says. “I wanted to know why were things coloured? Why were things in our surroundings the way they were? And chemistry could explain that. Chemistry can explain who we are and why we’re here and what the things are in our surroundings.”

As the only child of a motor mechanic and a bank teller, and the granddaughter of two cane-cutters, D’Alessandro didn’t come from an academic background. But, spurred on by a science teacher at Cairns’ Smithfield State High School, she soon decided that science had the answers.

After being named Dux of her high school in 1996, she enrolled in a science degree at James Cook University.

Her parents “just wanted me to be happy. They had no idea what I was getting into, and I didn’t either,” she recalls.

In fact, what she was getting into was a career that has taken her from Cairns to Sydney, the University of California, Berkeley, Europe and China.

She has a doctorate in chemistry, a string of academic awards and fellowships and is embarking on a research career in the exciting world of metal-organic frameworks.

Put simply – very simply – metal-organic frameworks are basically a network of scaffolding involving small clusters of metal atoms linked by rigid organic molecules and what they might end up doing is providing part of the solution to global warming.

The discovery has such potential that earlier this year D’Alessandro was part of a team of 19 researchers from five Australian universities to receive a $6 million grant. 

In 2007, on the back of her winning the 2006 Royal Australian Chemical Institute’s Cornforth Medal for the most outstanding PhD thesis submitted in a branch of chemistry in Australia and being named in 2007 as one of five worldwide winners of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry Prize for the same PhD, she travelled to California to pursue post-doctoral work with Professor Jeff Long at Berkeley.

For two years she worked in a team trying to refine a process which had been around since the 1930s. Liquid amines have long been known to have the capacity to soak up the harmful greenhouse gas – carbon dioxide – which is emitted from the flues of coal-fired power plants but the process is expensive. It also uses an enormous amount of energy – up to 40 per cent of the energy generated by the power station.

As part of the Berkeley team, D’Alessandro took the concept and managed to integrate it into a sponge-like metal-organic framework material that overcomes those problems.

The material is perhaps best explained by being a crystal full of minute holes. “If you take the millions of pores inside a sponge, each one the size of a nanometre – which is a fraction of the width of a hair – and you take the dimensions of all those pores and spread it out, then just a teaspoon of the substance could cover a football field,” D’Alessandro says.

But while covering football fields with a teaspoon full of minute holes might seem attractive, the exciting thing about the material is its potential to capture carbon dioxide as it is emitted from coal-fired powered power stations – much as liquid amines can – but to do it in a way that is far cheaper, uses less energy and is far safer.

The beauty is also that after collecting the gasses, the material can then release the gas on cue, enabling it to be re-used.

The discovery has such potential that earlier this year D’Alessandro was part of a team of 19 researchers from five Australian universities – Sydney, Monash, Melbourne, NSW and Adelaide – along with the CSIRO, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and the Australian Government’s CO2 Cooperative Research Centre, to receive a $6 million grant to explore how metal-organic frameworks can be used to capture and concentrate CO2 with minimum energy requirements.

In the next decade, D’Alessandro’s personal goals include establishing her own research team working independently on problems of world significance. 

The grant came from the Science and Industry Endowment Fund, a fund helping Australian scientific research since 1926 but which was rejuvenated in 2009 with a massive boost of $150 million from the CSIRO.

That money was itself the product of an earlier technological breakthrough by the CSIRO – the development of Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) technology. That technology, which is used in offices, public buildings, homes and coffee shops, connects computers without wires.

In the mid-1990s CSIRO was granted patents on its work in a number of countries, including the US. The technology is now used to connect wirelessly many electrical and electronic devices including printers, game consoles, TV sets and phones. The CSIRO has reported there are likely to be more than a billion devices sold worldwide over the next several years using the technology.

The income from the patent provided the injection of capital to the Science and Industry Endowment Fund and the $6 million grant to the team.

The money will be used, in part, to enable testing on a much bigger scale, with hopes the project will develop an efficient, cost-effective solution to the problem of climate change that is taxing the best scientific minds throughout the world.

‘’The goal,’’ says D’Alessandro, ‘’is that we provide a short-term solution to the problem. By that I mean a 20 to 40 year solution while we come up with something to replace the use of fossil fuels.’’

In the next decade, D’Alessandro’s personal goals include establishing her own research team working independently on problems of world significance.

‘’I like learning new things about the world,’’ she says, ‘’I love having an input into solving problems – that’s a nice place to be. You get to feeling like you are in a pretty powerful position.’’