The year 2018 was the fourth hottest on record and marks a continuing trend of rising global temperatures. With an increased risk of rising sea levels, unbearable heatwaves, and extreme weather events, researchers are actively searching for ways to address climate change.
Chemist Amy Chu is tackling energy-related problems through both fundamental research and science-driven energy policies by doing research through the Vagelos Institute of Energy Science and Technology and working as a scientific consultant for the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy.
Chu’s research focuses on a specific chemical reaction that combines carbon dioxide with hydrogen to create methanol. Methanol is a starting material for industrial products like paints, plastics, and foams, and can also be used as a fuel. This chemical reaction enables chemists to use carbon dioxide and hydrogen to make products such as methanol in ways that are environmentally sustainable.
“However, it’s not perfect,” says Chu. “When you put carbon dioxide and hydrogen together, methanol is not the only possible product.” Chu’s aim is to maximize the methanol generated by the reaction, and minimize the creation of other products. To do this, she sets up reactions with slightly different conditions in order to find the exact pressure, time, temperature, and catalysts that make the most methanol.
Chu’s chemical reactions are done at incredibly high pressures that reach up to 90 atmospheres—that’s the same amount of pressure a diver would experience 3,000 feet below sea level. After each 16-hour reaction, Chu can only collect three data points. But her patience and diligence will soon pay off: After a year of working on this project, she is now within a few months of completing the remaining reactions she needs before she can publish her work.
Chu owes her skill at tinkering with chemical reactions to her time spent as a Ph.D. student working at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. There, she researched alternatives to the rare and expensive metals that are used as catalysts in many industrial reactions. After joining the Goldberg group, she realized that her studies could have a broader impact on sustainability and energy. “By making one of the most important building blocks for current chemical processes more sustainably, this work can impact not only the chemicals industry but can change how we use energy collectively,” Chu says.
Outside of the lab, Chu works four hours per week on a project looking at sustainable ways to create natural gas. Natural gas, which consists primarily of methane, is drilled from the ground but can also be made in the lab from carbon dioxide. However, the latter is a cost-prohibitive process.
In her role at Kleinman, Chu surveys the technologies currently available for generating methane, and calculates the costs of each step. She also participates in monthly meetings with energy policy researchers there. “The goal is not only to let current technologies push the policymaking process but also to design a policy that enables technology to progress further,” says Chu.
While Chu has had a positive experience working as a scientific consultant, she wants to stay in academia because of her passion for teaching. Chu regularly volunteers at the Franklin institute, and sees education as key for empowering the next generation of scientists.
“Where I really think I can make an impact is by helping younger scientists understand the value of collaboration and the art of communication,” she says. “Scientists not only need to do good science, we also need to have the communication skills to talk about science and to educate others.”
Chu also believes in the power of fundamental chemical research to address challenges faced by both scientists and policymakers. By studying the mechanisms of chemical reactions, scientists can better understand how to improve their efficiency. But, Chu says, it will take more than experiments to make a difference.
“As a student, I thought that, as long as I keep my head down and did some good chemistry, someone would eventually realize that it was good and they would use it. But it’s really not that simple,” Chu says. “I don’t think there’s any other way to address climate change except for scientists to get involved in the more practical aspects. Solving issues about energy and trying to alleviate climate change will rely on collaboration among scientists and experts across all areas, including politicians, industry leaders, educators, and many others.”
Amy Chu is a post-doctoral research associate in the School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Chemistry at the Vagelos Institute for Energy Science and Technology in the lab of Karen Goldberg. She is also a scientific consultant for the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy.