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Young Family Motivates Researcher To Develop NETL Direct Air Capture Center
NETL researcher Dave Luebke

NETL researcher Dave Luebke

Researcher Dave Luebke doesn’t have to search far for inspiration as he works to develop the NETL Direct Air Capture (DAC) Center. It’s waiting for him when he gets home at the end of the day.

Luebke, technical director of the one-of-a-kind facility at the NETL campus near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and his wife, Jessica, are the proud parents of Alice, 2, and Malachi, who was born in March.

“There isn’t any aspect of my worldview that hasn’t changed at least a bit since becoming a parent,” Luebke said. “I don’t want to suggest that parenthood made me realize that our work in stabilizing the climate matters a lot, because I always thought that, but knowing that the world my kids live in is going to be profoundly altered by how we do that work makes it very easy to motivate myself to do my best.”

The work undertaken by Luebke and the DAC Center is a critical component of the effort to reach the nation’s goal to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Those who work alongside Luebke, a chemical engineer and an inventor on 11 patents, say he is much more than a leading expert in this emerging technology. They also note he brings a heightened sense of urgency to his research and an unrelenting drive to prevent the devastating consequences associated with climate change.

“From the day I met him, I found David to be both a world-leading authority in the development of DAC technologies and a strong advocate for the need to take climate action to save the planet for the next generation,” said Hannah Sieger, contracting officer’s representative at the NETL DAC Center, which is expected to be fully operational by mid-2025.

DAC technologies capture carbon dioxide (CO2) directly from the ambient air in contrast to point source capture processes that capture CO2 at power plants and industrial facilities. “While point source capture needs to be effectively deployed as part of the nation’s decarbonization efforts, DAC technologies will play an essential role in capturing emissions from hard-to-decarbonize sectors such as agriculture, shipping and aviation,” Luebke said.

Luebke spent the first 12 years of his career as a carbon capture researcher at NETL before leaving in 2014 to try his hand at entrepreneurship. He founded two successful companies, but ultimately his passionate belief in implementing carbon management brought him back to the Lab in 2023 to lead the DAC Center.

“Leaving NETL to work in start-ups in the middle of my career gave me the opportunity to learn and grow as a person and a professional in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise. But it also took me away from the place where I feel I can make the biggest impact in the effort to manage climate change,” Luebke said.

In 2022, Congress authorized $25 million for the development of the NETL DAC Center to serve as a comprehensive center to help partners — universities, research institutions and industry — leverage NETL’s expertise, test innovative DAC technologies and accelerate commercialization of those technologies.

“The work NETL is doing, particularly now with the major investments of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, will set the stage for a technological and economic revolution

Dave Luebke leads a discussion during a tour of the NETL Direct Air Capture Center.
Dave Luebke leads a discussion during a tour of the NETL Direct Air Capture Center.

in the next 25 years that will take us to a net-zero economy,” Luebke said. “I can’t think of any career more fulfilling than one that gets to contribute to that. The fact that I get to do it in a role as exciting as technical director of the new DAC Center has been a really great bonus.”

Material-scale testing at the DAC Center is already underway. When fully operational, the center will provide technology developers with a facility to test systems at three scales — lab-scale systems designed to examine the long-term stability of DAC materials, bench-scale module testing systems capable of probing flow dynamics and small pilot-scale skid rooms to test prototype DAC units under a broad range of climate conditions (from summer to winter and arid to tropical).

“We are providing a state-of-the-art testbed facility that can replicate the conditions of a July afternoon in Mississippi or a frigid January morning in Chicago for testing of prototype technologies that can capture carbon from ambient air, so it can be stored safely in the subsurface or converted into value-added products,” Luebke said.

Luebke grew up outside of DeWitt, a town of about 3,000 people, in southeastern Arkansas. He credits his mother, a teacher, with nurturing his love of science and understanding of the importance of education.

“As a kid, I wanted to be a marine or aquatic biologist. As it got near the time to select a college, I became more and more aware of the damage we were doing to those ecosystems. I decided to become an engineer instead because it seemed like a better approach to doing something about that damage,” said Luebke, who earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Arkansas and doctorate in chemical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh.

NETL is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory that drives innovation and delivers solutions for an environmentally sustainable and prosperous energy future. By leveraging its world-class talent and research facilities, NETL is ensuring affordable, abundant, and reliable energy that drives a robust economy and national security, while developing technologies to manage carbon across the full life cycle, enabling environmental sustainability for all Americans.