SFU researcher aims to advance existing technology to combat climate change

Sami Khan and research group work to enhance existing CO2 capture and conversion systems

Sami Khan wearing a suit on right hand side, leaning against counter behind him. On the counter, a white robot/microscope emits purple light.
Photo courtesy of Sami Khan

By: Yelin Gemma Lee, News Writer

Sami Khan, an assistant professor at SFU’s School of Sustainable Engineering, aims to combat the climate crisis by researching ways to improve existing energy systems. Khan directs the research group, Engineered Interfaces for Sustainable Energy (EISEn), in using chemistry and mechanical engineering to address climate change.

Khan spoke to The Peak about the research he and EISEn are focused on. “The specific focus for us is CO2 [carbon dioxide] capture and conversion because this is also a process that happens at interfaces. When CO2 bubbles are inserted in a liquid, the interfaces swarm between the bubble and the liquid that is absorbing or dissolving the CO2,” Khan said. “We are very interested in engineering [and] tuning this interaction so that we can enhance the performance and longevity of CO2 capture and conversion.”

Khan explained interfaces are “the boundaries between two mediums.” The interfaces are everywhere in the natural world, Khan said, such as at the bottom of the ocean, where there is a boundary between the ocean floor and the water. EISEn is interested in researching which interactions take place at these boundaries. 

Khan said enhancing carbon dioxide capture and conversion is a challenging endeavour. Currently, there is a dilute concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, about 400 parts per million which Khan compares to “a drop in a pond.” 

“When you have a very dilute concentration of CO2, then in order to capture that, there has to be a lot of energy and materials spent to filter out these molecules which are very dilute at the moment in the atmosphere,” said Khan. “If a lot of energy is spent to capture CO2, then that means that fuel has to be burnt and energy has to be spent so, in a way, the efficiency and the net benefits that you get from the process are lowered.”

He said there is great potential for CO2 capture and conversion systems to be more effective, as well as to use less energy through innovative chemistry based methods and materials. He explained the difference this could make, using an  analogy of glue. 

“If a surface is covered with glue and this glue is selectively capturing CO2 molecules, then it is spending less energy than, let’s say, pumping CO2 through a fluid,” said Khan. 

Khan emphasized the importance of interdisciplinary and collaborative approach in tackling the problem of climate change. 

“The current natural systems are not just finding it hard to cope but they’re also getting reduced, so forests getting annihilated, it’s a big challenge, because not only are they destroying trees which are natural capturing agents for CO2 but they are also emitting CO2 from the fires themselves,” said Khan. “CO2 capture and conversion systems, reducing the amount of CO2 emitted from our existing systems, and offsetting the existing impacts of climate change — all of these have to work together.”

Khan also explained this approach is necessary in policy-making, as there is currently “no homogeneity in terms of the understanding of the urgency and the next steps.” He emphasized it’s important for all levels of government to work together on regulations that collaboratively address these challenges. Khan encourages students to facilitate more conversations about the challenges we are facing from the climate crisis. 

“We all have to be in this together and we all should be aware of the challenges and the opportunities and the options that are available to address this crisis,” Khan said.