The pioneer: Dr. Harry Cordatos, Chemical Engineer and Project Manager at United Technologies

The concept: Equip coal-burning power plants with a filter that uses an artificial enzyme to capture CO2. Along with other air-breathers, we humans use the enzyme carbonic anhydrase to remove CO2 from our bodies. This enzyme reacts with CO2 faster and more efficiently than any chemical known to man. Taking a cue from the human body, Cordatos is incorporating a synthetic version of carbonic anhydrase into a thin polymer membrane which can capture CO2 before it enters smokestacks and channel the pollutant into a different chamber where it can be compressed and piped underground.

The payout: $2,251,183.00

The goal: Perfect the recipe for a synthetic version of carbonic anhydrase that can be placed inside a membrane (or filter), and measure the membrane’s performance in a smokestack environment. Within two years Cordatos hopes to show proof of concept for this process that could capture C02 at two-thirds the cost of prevailing commercial methods.

The hurdles: Knowledge, durability, and cost. We currently use chemicals called “amines” to scrub CO2 from the air in enclosed environments such as submarines and space shuttles (five percent CO2 in the air can be lethal). The amine method could remove 90 percent of CO2 from smokestacks too, but it would raise the cost of electricity by about 80 percent. Carbonic anhydrase is a vastly cheaper alternative, if Cordatos can determine how his synthetic anhydrase will behave inside a smokestack. There’s a high risk that contaminants in the flue gasses could deactivate the enzyme.

The promise:  “It’s humbling to see how much better nature is than industry at doing the things we need to do. Over millions of years of evolution, human bodies have developed an extremely efficient method for removing carbon dioxide. This is as good as it gets! It would behoove us to try to mimic that.”