Once you’re in, you can nerd out as much as you want. “Mr. B gave me a lot of autonomy,” Novek says. “He was there opening the lab for me in the evenings, on weekends, and even during vacations.” Novek was working in Bramante’s lab when he made an accidental scientific discovery that would change his life, and could change ours.

Chasing carbon

When fossil fuels are burned, the exhaust contains a mixture of gases: nitrogen and oxygen, both benign, and carbon dioxide, a dangerous greenhouse gas. To stop that CO2 from entering the atmosphere, conventional carbon-capture technology separates out the exhaust gasses through a process called reversible absorption.

It involves using a substance—usually an amine, an expensive derivative of ammonia—that selectively reacts with only CO2, and other non-greenhouse gases escape. The substance is then moved to a chamber where it is heated, which breaks the bond with CO2 and releases a pure stream of the greenhouse gas that can then be converted into a useful product or buried underground. The absorbing chemical is then put through a new cycle to capture more CO2 and on goes the loop.

This sort of carbon-capture technology has been in commercial use since the 1970s, but it hasn’t been adopted at the scale we need to mitigate climate change, because of four reasons: First, the amines typically used to selectively separate carbon dioxide are expensive. Second, a lot of heat is needed to break the bond between the amines and carbon dioxide, adding additional energy costs. Third, the apparatus in which these reactions are carried out have to be built to high, costly specifications. Finally, environmental groups loathe it because it extends the use of fossil fuels. That’s made for poor public relations. Politicians find it hard to convince people that carbon capture is worth it; even though the technology cuts emissions and can help hit climate goals, at the end there’s no shiny solar panel or wind turbine to show for it.

In his high-school lab, Novek made a discovery that could solve (or at least mitigate) many of these problems. At the time, he was working on something to submit to the prestigious International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). He thought he had a killer idea: a new way to cheaply produce urea, one of the world’s most important nitrogen-based fertilizers.

The chemistry to make urea is relatively simple: mix ammonia (NH3) with carbon dioxide (CO2) to get urea (NH2CONH2) and water (H2O). But the chemical reaction only happens under high pressure and at high temperatures, which means it requires a lot of energy. Globally, the production of nitrogen-based fertilizers accounts for slightly more than 1% of all the world’s energy. Any dent to that could have a large impact on the industry’s carbon footprint.

Ethan posing in front of the hood where he made his accidental discovery.
Ethan posing in front of the hood where he made his accidental discovery.
Image: Quartz/Akshat Rathi

Novek had recently learned a new concept called “salting out” in an advanced chemistry class. He believed he had an idea for a new way to deploy the concept, that would lower the cost of urea production.

In order to study a chemical, you usually need to separate it from the mixtures in which it’s found. Say you’re trying to extract a naturally occurring compound for use in a perfume or cosmetic. Maybe it’s found in the bark of a rare tree. What you’d probably do is put that bark in a solvent, often something as simple as water. After a while, the water-soluble compounds in the bark will seep into the water. But then you’d need to separate those compounds from the water. Distillation is one of the most common methods used to separate compounds; it involves heating the mixture and, because each component of the mixture has a different boiling point, each can be selectively removed from the mixture as temperatures rise.

But in some cases, the compounds are too delicate. In the perfume and cosmetics industries, distillation isn’t always preferred, because the heat causes many of the valuable, sensitive compounds they need to degrade. “Salting out” is an alternative that uses less energy. The charged particles in salt usually like water more than they like whatever water-soluble compounds are in the mixture. As salt is added, the particles break the weak chemical bonds between water and those compounds. Slowly, the compounds starts separating from the mixture.

Novek wanted to see what would happen if he mixed ethanol with ammonium bicarbonate, a salt whose components are ammonia and carbon dioxide. He thought maybe it could break ammonia and carbon dioxide apart and then recombine them, hopefully to produce urea. When he started the experiment, nothing happened. So he heated the mixture to agitate the molecules even more. He was surprised to see a gas bubbling. That didn’t make sense: urea is not a gas.

When he tested the gas, Novek realized it was almost entirely CO2. That’s when it struck him: He could use a version of the system to separate out the CO2 that results from burning fossil fuels, and capture it—at a lower cost lower than what the industry can achieve today. The most energy-intensive step in carbon capture is using heat to break the bond between an amine and carbon dioxide. Novek, in his experiment, had just broken the bond between ammonia and carbon dioxide, without very much energy.

Here’s how Novek imagined a future carbon capture system would work: First, exhaust gases containing carbon dioxide are piped into a mixture of ammonia and water. Ammonia reacts with the CO2 to form a salt, and the remaining inert gases (such as oxygen and nitrogen) escape. Second, a solvent is added to the mixture, and breaks down the salt back into ammonia and CO2. The resulting pure stream of carbon dioxide is captured and piped underground. Third, the solvent-and-ammonia mixture is separated through distillation, and each component then recycled through the process.

Image for article titled The teenager inventor who could change the way the world fights climate change

Early to university

Each year thousands of students around the world win science fairs. Few, if any, take their ideas any farther. Novek was that exception.

As he developed his urea project, Novek kept coming across research papers with the name of a Yale University professor, Menachem Elimelech. Novek emailed him many times seeking advice, requesting access to advanced equipment, and trying to set up an in-person meeting. But he got no response. Finally, after he won a number of prizes at the 2015 ISEF, Novek sent Elimelech a long email with all the new things he had developed in the year he’d spent in Bramante’s lab. This time, Elimelech replied with a one-line response asking Novek to meet in person.

It changed everything. Elimelech liked Novek’s ideas and invited the 16-year-old to join his lab. The Yale professor recruited other researchers to help Novek. The result of their work was a peer-reviewed study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters in July last year. If everything were to work as planned, Novek’s technology could capture carbon dioxide at $10 or so per metric ton, about 85% less than industry standard.

While experts were reviewing the paper, Novek was busy applying to take part in the Carbon X-Prize, a competition aimed at finding the most effective carbon-capture technology with prizes worth $20 million to be given.

Novek’s application made the cut, one of 22 teams to become an X-Prize semi-finalist. Now, Novek would have to show his technology worked outside of the lab. As part of the next round of the Carbon X-Prize competition, he had 12 months to build a pilot plant that could capture 200 kg of carbon dioxide per day from the exhaust gases of a power plant.

After evaluating quotes from three different places, Novek settled on building the pilot at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. For $250,000, the institute would provide Novek a small team of contract workers, a project manager, and, of course, the equipment needed to test his technology. To pay, Novek used all the money he had won from science fairs, and raised the rest through family and friends.

Struggles of an inventor

I met Novek nine months after he started building the plant. It was September 2017 and I was expecting him to be excited about getting to show off his technology at the X-Prize semi-final in October. But he said he had pulled out.

The X-Prize competition asks teams to not just capture CO2, but also convert it into a valuable product. If Novek were to stand a chance of winning, he would have had to partner with another team working on using CO2 to create products like plastic, chemicals, or concrete. But Novek was singularly focused on capture technology.

It’s a valid position. Remarkably, among the many startups I interviewed for this Quartz series on carbon capture, very few were working on making the capture process cheaper. Most were invested in finding ways to make products from CO2. But in the long run, the world will need to capture as much as 6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, and realistically, only a tiny fraction of that could be converted to useful products. In other words, cheaper capture is likely to be more valuable to society than any useful products that could be made from CO2. Novek gets that.

After pulling out of the X-Prize, Novek has doubled down on his tech. He’s secured funding from an investor to build another pilot plant that will use actual waste gas from a power plant or chemical factory, and capture 1,000 kg of carbon emissions per day. (Novek wouldn’t say who the investor is because of a confidentiality agreement.) He’s also currently applying for a $3 million grant from the US energy department.

There aren’t that many startups working on reducing the cost of carbon capture. There are also few, if any, teenagers in the business. Novek inhabits an unusual world, where the risk of failure is high and the monetary reward not particularly high. But he is living his dream, and that’s a good thing for the world.

Recently, Novek made the tough decision to defer his place at Yale, where he was accepted to study chemical engineering starting this fall. “I miss the social life,” he says. “But that can wait.”

You can sign up to our newsletter for more stories on the challenges and opportunities of low-emissions technology. The reporting was supported by a fellowship from the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.

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