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Energy grant to help ASU advance carbon capture technology

Daniel Buttry and students
November 26, 2012

Scientists to tame power plants by efficiently capturing carbon emissions

The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded Arizona State University a grant for alternative energy research that is part of a special DOE program to pursue high-risk, high-reward advances with the potential to change the way the nation generates and consumes energy.

The grant, led by Dan Buttry, professor and chair of ASU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is to develop an efficient and cost-effective carbon capture technology using an innovative electrochemical technique. ASU will separate carbon dioxide from other emissions coming from power plants with the real possibility of reducing energy and cost requirements by more than half. This could be an economically enabling breakthrough in the drive to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

“Through this type of venture we are working to advance research and spur economic development in the areas of renewable energy and energy security to create solutions that address society’s grand challenges,” said Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, senior vice president for ASU’s Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development. “This innovative project is a collaborative effort of faculty at ASU from multiple disciplines who are developing a new carbon capture technology.”

DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program has the goal of developing clever and creative approaches to transform the global energy landscape, while advancing America’s technology leadership. ASU’s grant is for $612,000 for one year.

In announcing the awards, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said: “With ARPA-E and all of the Department of Energy’s research and development efforts, we are determined to attract the best and brightest minds at our country’s top universities, labs and businesses to help solve the energy challenges of this generation. The 66 projects selected today represent the true mission of ARPA-E: swinging for the fences and trying to hit home runs to support development of the most innovative technologies and change what’s possible for America’s energy future.”

Inspired by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, ARPA-E was created to support high-risk, high-reward research that can provide transformative new solutions for climate change and energy security. The projects were selected through a merit-based process from thousands of concept papers and hundreds of full applications. The projects are based in 24 states, with approximately 47 percent of the projects led by universities, according to the DOE in a Nov. 28 release announcing the awards. 

ASU has been building up its portfolio in alternative energy research for several years and currently includes, among its capabilities, a center for research into electrochemistry for renewable energy applications; several advanced programs on solar energy research; one of the leading testing and certification centers for solar energy; and research into solar-generated biofuels including advanced work on algae-based biofuels.

“The potential of this project to advance solutions to the problem of excessive carbon dioxide in the environment is exciting and we look forward to the team’s progress in this area,” said Gary Dirks, director of ASU LightWorks. “ASU is a place where the convergence of laboratory research and real-world application creates a unique environment where imaginative energy-related projects are fostered and encouraged.”

The carbon capture program was initially supported by ASU LightWorks, which brings together the intellectual expertise across the university centered on leveraging the power of the sun to create solutions in the areas of renewable energy, including generating electricity, alternative fuels and preparing future energy leaders.  

“We are extremely excited about this new grant from the Department of Energy ARPA-E program," said lead ASU researcher Dan Buttry. "The effort is focused on a key issue in fossil fuel-based energy production – how to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions without consuming too much of the energy content of the fuel. We have recently developed a new approach to carbon dioxide capture that uses an electrochemical process with some design features similar to those in a fuel cell.”

Co-principal investigators on this project are Cody Friesen, SEMTE-Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering; Vladimiro Mujica, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry; and Ellen Stechel, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and also deputy director of LightWorks. Buttry and Friesen previously worked on an ARPA-E project developing a radical new design for automotive batteries.

The only proven commercially viable technology for flue gas capture uses compounds called amines in the so-called monoethanolamine (MEA) process. Several plant scale demonstrations use this old technology, first patented in 1930. The MEA process has several drawbacks, particularly the energy required for thermal regeneration of the amine capture agent. As discussed in a recent Department of Energy report (DOE/NETL-2009/1366), for typical conditions, the energy required for this process consumes roughly 40 percent of total plant output and increases the cost of electricity by 85 percent.

Buttry sees their current approach as having an overall efficiency far better than existing approaches.

“While there are many interesting basic science questions about how the separation works, the ARPA-E program’s emphasis on rapid implementation of technologies will have us running our fastest to accomplish the 'proof of concept' program goals in the 12-month grant period," Buttry said. "Fortunately, we have assembled a terrific team from ASU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, ASU LightWorks and the Fulton Schools of Engineering to hit the ground running.

"What we hope to accomplish is a demonstration of efficient and cost-effective carbon dioxide capture so we can move into a second phase of the project that would involve rolling the technology out into the marketplace.”

Written by Jenny Green

Media contact:
Amelia Huggins, (480) 965-1754
Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development
Arizona State University