Environmental Protection

UNT Model Suggests Proteins May Work for CO2 Capture

University of North Texas researchers Michael Drummond, Tom Cundari, and Angela Wilson used computer modeling and simulation to determine that a technique used in pharmaceuticals development could be applied to develop new materials that capture carbon dioxide (CO2) from industrial smoke stacks and other fixed sources and store the greenhouse gases (GHGs) underground.

Drummond is a post-doctoral chemistry researcher, Cundari is Regents Professor of chemistry, and Wilson is a professor of chemistry at the university.

The findings are detailed in American Chemical Society's bi-monthly journal Energy & Fuels.

About seven billion tons of man-made CO2 escape into the Earth's atmosphere every year, contributing to climate change, scientists say. A large portion of those emissions comes from power plants that burn coal, natural gas, and oil.

Removing CO2 from smokestacks has emerged in recent years as a potential solution and is of particular interest in Texas, which has an abundance of oil and gas wells that could be used for CO2 storage. Existing technologies, however, are expensive and can create hazardous waste.

UNT researchers decided to explore the possibility of using proteins in carbon capture technology. "Proteins offer so many benefits and possibilities," Drummond said. "In addition to being environmentally friendly, they have been engineered by nature to interact with molecules and often make useful products."

In the study, the researchers used the pharmacophore concept, which was developed for use in drug discovery, to probe how the 3-D structure of proteins affects their ability to bind and capture CO2.

A pharmacophore is essentially the molecular framework or pattern that carries the key features responsible for a drug's biological activity. In modern computational chemistry, pharmacophores are used to define the essential features of one or more molecules with the same biological activity.

The team determined that using proteins could lead the way to the development of cost-effective and environmentally friendly carbon capture technology. In addition, protein interaction has the potential to turn CO2 into useful products, such as liquid fuels or starting materials for important industrial chemicals.

"Rather than just sitting underground, carbon dioxide could actually do something good for humanity," Drummond said.

The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research.

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