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David Sholl: Science and technology solutions for decarbonization


Meeting today’s climate and energy challenges will require truly transformative solutions. That’s where David Sholl of the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory comes in. Sholl leads ORNL’s Transformational Decarbonization Initiative, which brings together big science capabilities and expertise from across the laboratory to advance development and deployment of decarbonization solutions for the nation’s energy system.

Sholl and an interdisciplinary team of scientists are advancing technological and biological solutions to capture, convert, use, and store carbon that would otherwise warm the atmosphere and accelerate climate change. Sholl brings to the task a background in development of new chemical process technologies as well as experience with academic research and industry collaboration.

What climate-related problem are you working on?

Here at ORNL, we’re developing a series of technologies that will be useful for capturing and converting carbon dioxide. One of the key things we need to do to mitigate climate change is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that we put into the atmosphere. One of the ways we can do that is to pull that carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. We’d also like to find useful things to do with that carbon dioxide.

There’s a range of chemical products that today we typically make from fossil fuel starting points, but we’d like to be able to make them from carbon dioxide. For instance, a lot of people are familiar with ethanol that’s blended into gasoline. There are ways to make ethanol starting from carbon dioxide. There are also specialty products we could potentially make from carbon dioxide. If you think about things like graphite, a form of carbon that’s very important in a number of technological applications, we are looking at ways to make graphite starting from carbon dioxide.

Now, this is not an easy problem. There are a lot of difficulties, but there are technological routes to do these things. So those are some of the challenges we’re working on.

Why does the research matter?

We’re trying to do research that will help really revolutionize how the economy works. We want to move, over the coming decades, to an economy that is net zero carbon emissions. There will be many parts of the economy that will still emit carbon dioxide. We will absolutely need to do that, and so we need to develop a suite of carbon negative technologies that will help us pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to offset those existing sectors of the economy.

What keeps you motivated?

These are problems of global significance that we’re working on, and it’s really exciting to see all of the different groups in society that are interested in solving them. Obviously, individual people want to address these issues, but also there’s tremendous interest in industry in finding solutions to these very difficult problems. All of this means it’s a wonderful area to work in.

What about the research keeps you up at night?

One of the things that I worry about in this area is simply the scale at which things need to be done, and the speed at which we need to do them. We’re working on developing new technologies, but we have to be immediately thinking about how we can scale those to capture hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide a year. That’s a really daunting prospect.

What would you tell a student interested in pursuing a career in climate science or a related field?

For young people who are looking for rewarding careers to work in climate science or the technology related to low-carbon solutions, this is a fantastic area to be in. We really are going to have to change almost everything in our economy to address these global issues, and we need bright, young, energetic people to do that.