New faculty hit the ground running with carbon capture research
A group of new scholars hired by the Yale Center for Natural Carbon Capture (YCNCC) is poised to launch a wave of innovative, multidisciplinary research programs aimed at measuring, mitigating, and adapting to the ongoing threat of climate change.
The center, created in 2021 to study the fundamental applied science of natural carbon capture, has funded the hiring of four new faculty members — Matthew Eisaman, Sparkle Malone, Eric Slessarev, and Paulo Brando — who will have academic affiliations with the Yale School of the Environment (Malone and Brando), and the departments of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (Slessarev), and Earth and Planetary Sciences (Eisaman) in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
Their labs will focus on natural carbon capture processes that occur in the planet’s oceans, coastal ecosystems, tropical forests, and in the soil itself, and how these processes might help humankind reduce global carbon emissions.
“This is a huge boon for Yale’s push to contribute to science solutions,” said Dave Bercovici, the Frederick William Beinecke Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and co-director of YCNCC. “This new faculty cluster expands our expertise and research profile and provides more opportunities for students and young scholars in these areas.”
The center, which is part of Yale’s Planetary Solutions Project, was initiated by a $100 million gift from FedEx, with subsequent gifts from Southwest Airlines and the Boeing Corporation. Three focus areas guide the center’s efforts: storing more carbon in existing ecosystems, increasing the carbon capture potential in rocks and the ocean, and converting carbon dioxide into useful materials and fuels.
Liza Comita, a professor of tropical forest ecology at YSE and co-director of YCNCC, said the new hires “signal Yale’s commitment to innovative scholarship that both advances fundamental knowledge and contributes to efforts to tackle real-world environmental problems.”
Eisaman, an associate professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, will arrive July 1.
Currently at Stony Brook University, he’s a leading researcher in the use of electrochemistry to control ocean acidity and accelerate the oceans’ massive potential to capture and store carbon. His work encompasses elements of physics, chemistry, materials science, environmental engineering, and marine science.
“It’s as interdisciplinary as science gets,” Eisaman said of emerging research relating to carbon capture.
A major piece of Eisaman’s work involves designing systems that can take waste brine streams and use electricity to re-arrange their molecules in such a way that they hold onto carbon dioxide. He co-founded a startup company, Ebb Carbon, that created a system for storing atmospheric carbon dioxide in seawater while reducing ocean acidity. Eisaman also develops devices and sensors for measuring the effectiveness of carbon storage in oceans.
“My approach to ocean alkalinity enhancement meshes extremely well with work done at Yale on ocean chemistry and circulation, and interactions with marine environments,” he said. “The urgency of the climate change problem has put a higher priority on this for me, as time has gone by.”
Malone, an assistant professor at the Yale School of the Environment, joined the Yale faculty last fall, coming from Florida International University.
Her area of expertise is “disturbance” ecology — the effects of fires, hurricanes, snowstorms, and land development on coastal ecosystems. Those systems contain powerful mechanisms for natural carbon capture, and their disturbance carries the threat of releasing previously stored carbon back into the atmosphere.
“My lab looks at the carbon uptake potential of these ecosystems and how it changes over time,” Malone said. “If we’re going to create new mitigation strategies, we have to account for changes to natural systems when they are disturbed.”
One avenue of research she intends to pursue at Yale is developing techniques to measure the methane emissions from natural ecosystems, an important factor in understanding global climate change since methane is a very potent greenhouse gas.
She also expects to be inspired by the ongoing work of her YCNCC colleagues, Malone said.
“I want to know how natural carbon sequestration is changing across all ecosystems,” she said.
Slessarev, an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, comes to Yale July 1 after four years as a postdoc and then research scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
His work looks at soil and its role in terrestrial ecosystems. That includes how soil influences the natural carbon cycle. Slessarev has conducted significant research on how soil properties develop in different environments, with an eye toward informing soil management approaches that can mitigate climate change.
“My research sits at the intersection of a bunch of questions about how soil interacts with the biosphere and the geosphere,” he said, adding that one major goal of his research is to predict the effects of soil management on carbon storage in a variety of environments.
Being part of a cluster of new hires at YCNCC was attractive to Slessarev for several reasons, he said. For one, soil research is inherently interdisciplinary; for another, the YCNCC creates a tangible spirit of momentum.
“The carbon capture world has moved really fast in the past four or five years,” he said. “New startup companies are outpacing the science in some ways. Scientists must play a role in evaluating these technologies in an even-handed manner.”
Brando, an associate professor of ecosystem carbon capture at the Yale School of the Environment, arrived at Yale in December from the University of California at Irvine.
He’s a leading expert on deforestation and forest degradation in the Amazon, with research experience both in academia and at private institutes — including groundbreaking research conducted during massive fires in the Amazon in 2019 and 2020. With the help of remote sensing technology and field observations, his research focuses on identifying thresholds of forest mortality associated with climate change, loss of certain animal species, forest fires, and forest fragmentation.
“To move beyond finger-pointing over environmental problems and find long lasting solutions, you must engage a wide range of experts, with a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints,” Brando said. “It means being able to conduct high-level academic research to understand what global changes will do to forests, but also provide relevant information for policymaking and land management.”
Brando said he was eager to join YCNCC and YSE colleagues in building research programs that use scholarship as a starting point for natural climate solutions. He also plans on working with students both at Yale and in his native Brazil.
“People at the Yale Center for Natural Carbon Capture are truly serious about the synergy that can grow out of this,” he said. “There is momentum here to find ways to quantify the roles of nature-based solutions for climate mitigation that you don’t see at very many places.”