Ethan Novek was digging a hole in the sand at a beach in Connecticut when he noticed something that got him thinking. The seawater that seeped into the hole was rising at the same rate as the tides offshore. What if that seepage could be harnessed for energy in wells onshore, rather than out in the trickier ocean environment?
That idea kicked off the first in a chain of experiments that eventually landed Novek at Yale University, leading a research project while he was still in high school. Starting after that summer at the beach before his freshman year, Novek ran successive experiments at his school's lab. By the time he was a sophomore, he had arrived at a simple and economical way to capture carbon dioxide from the air and convert it into useful products. He recently became a semifinalist in the $20 million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE.
In conversation, Novek is almost breathless as he describes his research. There's a lot to cover. His "weird route," as he calls it, from that seaside brainstorm to carbon capture began with filing a patent for a tidal energy system, which then led him to research the energy potential of salinity gradients between freshwater and ocean water, which led him to explore parallel reactions between ammonia and carbon dioxide. Fully appreciating his rapid-fire account of the multiple threads of inquiry that led to his carbon capture idea might require an advanced education in chemistry.
But Novek is certainly not alone in his fascination with carbon capture, which offers a tantalizing but elusive prospect: If we can siphon planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions away from the smokestack before they hit the atmosphere, then maybe the imperative to phase out fossil fuels becomes a bit less dire.
The Carbon Capture Case
Despite the world's wealth of carbon dioxide, extracting it on a commercial scale— where it can be stored underground or recycled into other products—has been a tough nut to crack. Billions of dollars have disappeared into high-profile "clean coal" projects in Canada and Mississippi (work on the latter was just suspended) without producing the hoped-for results.
"I've always been inspired by the concept of turning waste products into valuable materials," says Novek. "I love the concept of being able to bring everyone in the world to a higher standard of living without running out of the resources we have on Earth."
To him, carbon capture has less to do with extending the use of coal for electricity and more to do with industrial pollution. He points out that even if we could manage to get all our electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar, the world would still be left with carbon dioxide emisisons from steel and cement factories, for example, which aren't nearly as far along as the power sector in converting away from fossil fuels.
"How do you deal with that aspect?" he asks of those industrial sites. "That’s where CO2 capture comes into play."
As Novek read papers on salinity gradients for his tidal energy idea, he saw a recurring name: Menachem Elimelech. So he wrote to the Yale professor, expressing interest in his research and peppering him with questions via email. He got no reply.
In the meantime, Novek kept pursuing his experiments, which eventually led him to carbon dioxide. After winning awards including first place at Intel's International Science and Engineering Fair for his mechanism to turn carbon dioxide and ammonia into urea, a main component of fertilizer, he wrote again to Elimelech with an update.
This time, he got a reply. Congratulating Novek on his persistence, Elimelech wanted to know whether the teen would present his research at Yale and publish a peer-reviewed journal article on the topic.
Novek spent his last two years of high school on Yale's campus, shifting from the urea idea to his carbon capture and reuse concept, which focuses on organic solvents that release carbon dioxide from flue gas at room temperature, using 96 percent less energy than existing carbon capture processes. He is also working on an idea to use waste hydrogen sulfide from oil and gas operations to convert carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide, which is used to produce chemicals and plastics.
Working with Elimelech and graduate students, he published a peer-reviewed paper and entered the XPRIZE competition while earning his high school degree remotely.
"I have had many, many bright students come and go," says Andrew Bramante, who led Novek's Independent Science Research class at Greenwich High School in Connecticut. "Ethan, however, is a breed apart."
Insight From Setbacks
Bramante guesses Novek "likely spent his class time dreaming of his inventions, rather than completing the requisite class work." Novek confirms as much, saying that before he moved to New Haven, he was having trouble balancing the time commitments of high school with his Yale research.
But Novek says the early freedom to experiment in his high school lab and at home is what helped him succeed. His parents aren't science-minded, he says, so there was no one to tell him not to bother with an experiment that might be bound to fail but would give him valuable insight.
"I actually experienced grit, in a sense—to really be able to realize why something doesn't work," he says, "instead of someone telling me why something doesn't work." He also relied heavily on Web research, looking up papers in journals: "If the Internet didn't exist, I don't know where I would be right now."
Now 18, Novek has founded a company, Innovator Energy, to pursue his carbon capture and conversion techniques and has relocated to San Antonio, Texas, where he is building a prototype of his system with a team at the Southwest Research Institute. He says his technology can capture carbon dioxide at $8 per ton, well below the current market price (around $13 per ton in California, for example).
Though recently admitted at Yale, where he plans to study chemical engineering, Novek is taking a gap year to focus on his carbon research. With that year, he says, he aims to "create the biggest impact in the shortest period of time."