Ah-Hyung (Alissa) Park | Capturing Carbon for Sustainable Energy

Ah-Hyung (Alissa) Park
Lenfest Junior Professor in Applied Climate Science
This profile is included in the publication Excellentia, which features current research of Columbia Engineering faculty members.
                                    Photo by Eileen Barroso

Ah-Hyung (Alissa) Park has been called the “Carbon Lady” for good reason. She is one of the leading experts in the many forms that carbon takes as humans transform the environment, and her path-breaking work may help pave the way to a future in which society obtains energy and materials from a wide range of sustainable sources and deals with its excess carbon in surprising ways.

“The future of humanity depends on our ability to use energy and materials with an eye towards environmental sustainability,” said Park, who is also the associate director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy. “This will inevitably have to include efficient extraction of energy and materials from fossil resources, biomass, and municipal solid wastes.”

Park studies the ways that carbon circulates through industrial and environmental processes. “The reason we take so much carbon out of the ground is because of our needs for energy and materials,” said Park. “If we can find a way to keep the carbon circulating above ground while providing energy and materials, we won’t have to take so much out of the ground.”

More than seven billion tons of carbon produced by human activity around the world ends up in the atmosphere each year, primarily in the form of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. Being able to manage our role in the global carbon cycle is an important step in the future of our society. Park is investigating novel ways to integrate carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies with those that synthesize hydrogen and liquid fuels from coal, biomass and municipal solid wastes including non-recyclable plastics.

Today, Park is also working to advance efforts to capture carbon dioxide from emissions and lock it away permanently and economically. To do this, she is exploring the use of nanoparticle organic hybrid materials (NOHMs), a new class of organic-inorganic hybrid materials that consist of a hard nanoparticle core surrounded by functionalized corona. NOHMs are essentially solvent-free, particle-based fluids that provide a large number of capture sites for CO2. By imposing frustration onto the corona structure, CO2 capture can be enhanced via not only enthalpic but also entropic effects.

Park is also looking for ways to safely and permanently dispose of the captured carbon dioxide as mineral carbonates or to convert it to other useful materials such as paper or plastic fillers. The key to achieving sustainability is to take a more holistic view of the systems that process carbon.

“In the past, engineering has mainly focused on optimizing the individual unit of a process,” said Park. “Today, we need to look at the big picture and add environmental sustainability to our equations.”

B.S., University of British Columbia (Canada), 1998; M.S., University of British Columbia, 2000; Ph.D., Ohio State University, 2005

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