From waste to a solid mineral: a new technology that captures CO2 from the atmosphere and cleans up the planet

Global problem, local solution

La Follette graduate student Jenna Greene talks about her experience on UW’s Earth RepAIR team competing for the Elon Musk-funded XPRIZE.

Interview by Mary Ellen Gabriel

Jenna Greene calls her contribution to Earth RepAIR, the UW-Madison team participating in the XPRIZE Carbon Removal competition—a $100 million global challenge funded by Elon Musk and the Musk Foundation—“a narrow piece of the puzzle.” But all puzzle pieces are essential to the whole. Greene, who graduates from the La Follette School of Public Affairs with a master’s degree in public policy this spring, brought important insights to the Earth RepAIR team that was among the top 60 groups selected in the multistage competition (and one of only 21 teams focusing on direct air capture).

The UW team, comprised mostly of engineering students and professors, has been working on an innovative system featuring a simple chemical reaction that efficiently harvests carbon dioxide from the air. Greene focused on community engagement – the delicate work that must be done to lay the groundwork for new climate and energy policy.

We caught up with Greene to ask her about the experience of working on a team in a race to save the Earth’s atmosphere.

How did you get involved with the EarthAir team?

Rob Anex, a professor from the College of Engineering, asked my graduate advisor, Greg Nemet, if he could recommend some graduate students who could bring a policy perspective. I’m pursuing an Energy and Analysis Policy graduate certificate [offered by the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the Wisconsin Energy Institute] and I have been doing research with Greg on negative emissions technology. I’d also worked on an energy project previously with Keerthana Sreenivasan, a graduate student who’s helping to lead the team. That led to an invitation to join Earth RepAir.

Jenna Greene Headshot
Jenna Greene

What’s negative emissions technology?

It’s a way to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it permanently. Mitigation is a word that people often use to mean lowering our emissions from the source or stopping them altogether. Negative emissions is saying there is already too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and we need to get it out. The technologies vary widely – planting trees is one way to do it. This team is working on something called “direct air capture.” I like to think of their technology as a “vacuum cleaner for the air.”

Graduate studies can be demanding, and this team required work outside your public policy courses and homework. What made you say “yes?”

I was excited for two reasons: One, I had been doing this research on negative emissions technologies, but I had never seen an actual direct-air capture technology at work. I thought it would be interesting to experience that and to work with people who were developing this in a lab. The other reason is that it was an interdisciplinary experience. I love the UW-Madison opportunities that allow me to see the full scope of what this university is, and all the research on campus.

Talk about your specific contribution to the team.

There were people in this group who contributed a lot more than I did, because their pioneering lab work was at the heart of the solution. I should also say that it wasn’t just me providing the policy perspective – Mattie Bindl is a PhD student at the Nelson Institute and Mikhaila Calice is a PhD student in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences [CALS], with a master’s degree in public policy from the La Follette School. We are all three pursuing the EAP certificate. We focused on the potential environmental, social and equity impacts of the technology. In other words, if this technology were to get funded, and a plant were built, what would be the impact of such a facility on communities?

We asked things like: Does the town or the state have a say over a big energy plant? What are some environmental impacts from past projects that may cause community concern?

Talk more about some of the barriers to a clean energy plant.

One concern could be about having an energy plant sited nearby—people may find it difficult to think about a change in land use in their area.

Also, it’s hard to visualize. You can’t see carbon dioxide sucked out of the air! Even though climate change is a global problem these siting decisions have to be made locally, and someone could say: “This vacuum cleaner for the air sounds great, but I don’t want it situated across the street from my house on Lake Monona.” A lot of people have done a lot of work to think about how to make solar and wind farms more beneficial for communities, where the pitch is not just about clean energy, but also maybe about tax incentives or designated pollinator habitat on the site. If local benefits can be felt, that is a win-win. Mikhaila does a lot of research on risk perception, in communities. I’ve learned a lot from her. I also drew upon some things that I had learned at La Follette and through the EAP program: courses like Public Management, Policy Analysis and Global Environmental Governance.

You’re graduating this May, what do you plan to do next, and how has the Earth RepAIR experience helped you think about all of that?

I will be pursuing a PhD in the Nelson Institute. I don’t necessarily have interest in going into business, but the Earth RepAIR experience did give a crash course in what it takes to go from a technology that is working in the lab, to raising money for it (as in, going for the XPRIZE), to siting it and then to scaling it up. The opportunity to be on the ground floor with some of my other teammates engaging on those questions was great. And that’s what my policy courses have reinforced, too – you have to think about those community questions early. I really enjoyed that and would like it to be part of future work that I do.