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SFU professor combines passions for sustainability and public policy to tackle climate change

August 26, 2021
SFU professor Sami Khan is tackling climate change by develop innovative solutions for challenges faced by alternative energy systems.

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 challenges faced by 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 believes that 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 COemissions 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 its conversion into fuel or materials for pharmaceutical use. 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 COin our atmosphere while also capturing CO2 directly from industrial emissions.

In addition to conducting research on COconversion, Khan believes that 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 realized that the concepts of sustainability and public policy must work in conjunction with each other in order to achieve the sustainability goals outlined in the Paris Agreement. This led him to pursue a master’s degree in technology and policy at MIT in addition to his master’s and PhD degrees in mechanical engineering.

Khan recently received a highly reputable fellowship with Action Canada. Funded by the Government of Canada, the fellowship brings together aspiring leaders from various disciplines to work on a public policy challenge that Canada is currently facing. This year, one of the themes of the fellowship is how to find areas of improvement within Canada’s existing immigration system. For Khan, he viewed this challenge from a sustainability lens.

“Canada needs skilled experts that will accelerate our sustainable energy goals in the next 30 years,” he claims.

“In order for us to meet this goal, myself and the other fellows are examining ways to speed up the immigration process for individuals 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,” asserts 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 have been a substantial amount of climate events such as heatwaves, forest fires and drought conditions. In a recent report, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change claims that most of the changes to our climate are irreversible. They believe that it is possible to prevent this crisis from worsening by reducing CO2 emissions as it is the main contributor to climate change.

Khan hopes that with the continuation of their research into CO2 capture and conversion, his team will find a plausible and viable solution.

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