SFU professor combines passions for sustainability and public policy to tackle climate change
By Rachel Mah
Sami Khan is determined to find a solution to the ongoing climate crisis. By combining his expertise in chemical engineering with his passions for sustainability and public policy, he is taking an interdisciplinary approach. Recently selected to join Canada’s top accelerator for emerging leaders in public policy, Khan aspires to make an impact from grassroots research to the highest level of policymaking.
As a professor in SFU’s School of Sustainable Energy Engineering, Khan leads the Engineered Interfaces for Sustainable Energy (EISEn) research group to develop innovative solutions for the challenges facing alternative energy systems. Some of the group’s research includes designing smart coatings for corrosion protection and understanding and tuning surface chemistry of rare-earth oxides. The group is particularly interested in enhancing performance and longevity in carbon dioxide (CO2) capture and conversion systems as it may be the key to finding a long-term solution to climate change. Khan says our current energy systems tend to have drawbacks that hinder their effectiveness and commercialization.
“Many technologies for CO2 capture and conversion are still in the nascent stages, and there is plenty of room for research and development,” says Khan.
“In order to combat climate change, our group hopes to develop a system that can significantly reduce CO2 emissions directly from the atmosphere and convert it into useful products such as ethanol.”
The EISEn group strives to find an approach to enhance the rate of CO2 capture and conversion. Current research and technologies focus on pressurizing CO2 and converting it to a liquid to be stored underground. Inspired by how plants convert CO2 to energy (in the form of sugar) through photosynthesis, the research group hopes to find a system to replicate this process.
“The goal is to develop a process that would have high CO2 conversion efficiency to help overcome some of the existing challenges in the field, which include CO2 availability in the electrolyte and catalyst longevity,” says Khan.
In the long run, he hopes that this new process of capture and conversion can greatly reduce the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere while also capturing CO2 directly from industrial emissions.
In addition to conducting research on CO2 conversion, Khan says it is also crucial for policy-makers to be aware of these ground-breaking technologies and their impact on key metrics used in policy decisions, such as greenhouse gas reduction, net zero CO2 emissions or even job creation.
Although Khan wants his research to make an impact on society, he knows that it is also necessary to have government support. He realizes the concepts of sustainability and public policy must work together to achieve the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement.
In June, Khan received a prestigious fellowship with Action Canada. Funded by the federal government, the fellowship brings together aspiring leaders from various disciplines to work on a Canadian public policy challenge. This year, one of the fellowship themes is to find areas for improvement within Canada’s immigration system. Khan views this challenge from a sustainability lens.
“Canada needs skilled experts that will accelerate our sustainability goals in the next 30 years,” he says.
“In order for us to meet this goal, we are examining how Canada’s immigration process can prioritize applicants who have such unique expertise.”
Looking forward, Khan hopes to uncover a long-term sustainable energy solution for everyone and address our biggest environmental concern, which is climate change.
“We must continue to identify the bottlenecks and impediments within our CO2 research in order to find an innovative solution,” says Khan.
“At the same time, we must continue to provide policy-makers with the newest and most advanced technologies and expertise so that they can make the most well-informed decisions in their public policies.”
This summer alone, there has been a substantial number of disastrous climate events. In a report released this August, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change claims that most of the changes to our climate are irreversible. Still, they say it is possible to prevent this crisis from worsening by reducing CO2 emissions, the main contributor to climate change.
Khan hopes his team will find a plausible and viable solution by continuing with research into CO2 capture and conversion.