Hafiz Salih is a chemical and environmental research engineer by training and serves as the Head of Business Development for Point Source Capture at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC). Hafiz earned his Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering from the University of Cincinnati and has more than a decade of experience in research in the area of the water-energy-carbon nexus.
When he's not doing science, you can find Hafiz reading a book or watching movies, spending most of his time with his family. He recently answered a few questions about his life and his work.
What sparked your interest in science and when did you become interested?
I want to say I was always interested. When I was young, I always thought I’d go into biological science, not thinking about engineering. But I just so happened to go to a college of engineering and took it from there. In Sudan, it’s different, when you reach the 12th grade there is a countrywide exam for college admission. Let’s say out of 100,000 kids that took the exam at one time, 20,000 will go to university. Every kid has a list of their top schools and majors, but if your top pick isn’t available you have to go with your second or third choice. You are not necessarily going to be your top choice, but it must be something you can live with.
So, is that what happened to you where you maybe didn’t get your first choice?
Yeah, I think my first choice was medical or something like that but then I went into engineering, and, you know, it was fine.
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Tell me a little bit about your role at ISTC
From 2013 - 2015 I was researching membrane technology and water treatment at ISTC as a postdoc with Dr. Nandakishore Rajagopalan, then I moved to the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS) where I completed several projects on the water-energy nexus and started doing carbon capture work before returning to ISTC. I've continued doing carbon capture research, but I also manage large-scale carbon capture projects and work on business development for carbon capture.
What is the best part of your job at ISTC?
I like the research part of it. It is always good to be challenged with a problem; it feels good to solve it. The other part I like is the interactions with people from different places. You go to these host sites, and you start building relationships with people from different backgrounds, which is great.
How does your work at ISTC impact Illinois and the world?
Our team is becoming one of the main teams in the country for carbon capture. We are getting a lot of funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and are helping develop and scale up different technologies through pilot testing, front-end engineering design (FEED) studies for these technologies, etc. We're also working with companies with their own carbon capture technologies and matching them with potential host sites— for example, power plants, steel plants or an industrial facility. We team up with an engineering, procurement and construction firm to visit a facility and put in the whole engineering design, like a cost estimate, and all these things for carbon capture to remove CO2 from the facility.
When you say point-source, you mean basically at the point the exhaust is being released into the atmosphere, you’re capturing the CO2 at the same time?
So when we are talking about point-source, imagine you have a tube (smokestack) where the gas is coming up from a power plant, cement plant or steel plant. You force the gas through the CO2 (removal) system where all the CO2 is removed, and you release the air back into the atmosphere, this time with fewer contaminants and little to no CO2.
I think it’s good for people to understand this because they’ve heard a lot about it on the news— about carbon sequestration, people talking about injecting it into the ground, and all these different things.
Once you capture it, you have to deal with it. At ISGS, some geologists' research is focused on injecting the CO2 about 7,000 feet underground. Another option is to utilize the CO2 and use it for algae growth, making different chemicals, mineralization, concrete mixing and more. However, these utilization technologies can only use a small percentage of what people want to capture. So, most of the CO2 capture will go underground for now.
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How can we make science more inclusive and attractive to future researchers of all identities and backgrounds?
This is a big question. The first thing I think about is to make sure you fund more PIs or scientists who are minorities, and you need special programs for minorities to apply for and get funding. Also, make sure research teams have people from different backgrounds. When I was a student in Cincinnati, there was a program from the National Science Foundation (NSF) where you went to schools and got minority students and immigrant students, to bring them into the lab at the university to try to get them interested in engineering. Reaching out to the community and involving them more in the research, because it’s not enough to have a few researchers involved— it would be better to have the whole community involved.
I think that’s a good point. If NSF is having these programs to fund these people and they can’t find them because they don’t exist, then that’s part of the problem.
When I was working for Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, there was a research study about lead poisoning in infants, and it was difficult to recruit moms from underrepresented communities to participate in the study, so what can you do? Immigrant families, for example, have lots of problems settling. Sometimes, even if they commit and say they will do it, you come back in one year and they might not have time for you, or they have moved. It’s very easy to lose them quickly.
There’s a lot of distrust among communities in the U.S. for studies like that because they’ve heard about bad things happening.
Big distrust also between smaller communities and the global system, and if you look at it sometimes it’s justified. It’s a big problem. The good thing though, is that in the latest DOE call for proposals, they asked everyone in their proposal to write a few pages about diversity, equity, and inclusion. They force them to come up with a plan. How you are going to get minority people in your team, reach out to disadvantaged communities, so it seems like they are moving in the right direction. There is also a great focus on the community benefit aspect of carbon capture projects.
That’s good because there’s a good chance that climate change will have a disproportionately negative effect on minority communities.
I found out that historically these big plants that cause a lot of pollution are all in minority communities, so now you are telling them I’m going to put a CO2 capture system here, and they think it’s bad.