Focusing on our energy future
Discovering clean, renewable energy sources is imperative for our future and is the goal of chemical engineers around the world. In the Dan F. Smith Department of Chemical Engineering, faculty members are conducting innovative research in the Center for Chemical Energy Engineering directed by Tracy Benson, assistant professor (right), and co-directed by David Cocke, professor (left).
The Center for Chemical Energy Engineering focuses on chemical-conversion technologies that expand existing energy resources, including petroleum, natural gas and coal, with renewable and transitional resources. “Using a sustainability-driven approach, our mission is to develop carbon-recycling strategies that can supplement our energy needs while reducing our carbon footprints that arise from those energy requirements,” Benson said.
The laboratories contained within the center are the Laboratory for Industrial Catalysis, the Laboratory for Fuel Cell Systems and the Laboratory for Transitional Energy Systems. “Our vision of the CCEE at Lamar is a comprehensive approach towards energy independence with regard for environmental concerns,” Benson said. For example, research projects that turn carbon dioxide into useful fuels and chemicals and fuel cells that have water as exhaust provide for sustainable, environmentally friendly chemical energies.
This type of research—catalyst synthesis and electrical energy storage devices—requires rigorous application of basic sciences, including chemistry, physics and engineering, to develop a true understanding of the physical and chemical changes that must occur for each of these research areas. In conjunction, the Ph.D. program in chemical engineering is home to faculty conducting acclaimed process and sustainability research. Collaboration with faculty members who are experts in different areas will provide the avenue in developing chemical processes and devices that are market-ready. The center is dedicated to bringing novel research ideas to the mainstream market and will significantly benefit the energy needs of tomorrow’s America, Benson emphasized.
For a number of years, the department has been successfully positioning itself to become a major university player in the “road to energy independence” for the United States, Benson said. The department has built on its historical strength in petroleum and chemical processing engineering, the foundation of the hydrocarbon economy. In the near future are renewable possibilities that could prolong the hydrocarbon economy and fulfill the potential of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and water energy that need to be transformed into more user-friendly forms such as chemical energy.
“The most important aspect of this emerging future energy scenario is the need to produce and store chemical energy in the form of hydrogen, electrochemical (batteries), hydrocarbons from carbon dioxide and biomass and the necessity to extend the fossil fuel-based sources, which we term transitional technologies,” Benson said. The first major move toward this goal was the establishment of the Fuel Cell and Energy Systems Center in the Texas Centers for Technology Incubation and the Lamar Fuel Cell Laboratory. Here the production of hydrogen and its utilization in fuel cells to produce electrical energy with only water as the end product has been and will continue to be explored. This was followed by substantial funding from the Department of Defense, through the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, to establish a world-class hydrogen, catalyst and fuel cell laboratory. The Fuel Cell Laboratory became one of the best-equipped university laboratories in the nation. It will continue to be operated with support from Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer funding, which provide funding for collaborative projects between universities and businesses and help get research ideas to market.
The addition of Benson, a catalyst researcher, vastly expanded the mission in catalysis, and—in collaboration with Cocke and other faculty members including Helen Lou, Daniel Chen and Sidney Lin—has produced a critical mass of catalyst expertise. This prompted the reorganization and renaming of the Fuel Cell and Energy Systems Center to the Center for Chemical Energy Engineering. David Cocke, the former director, continues to direct the Laboratory for Fuel Cell Systems and work closely with the Laboratory for Industrial Catalysis and the Laboratory for Transitional Energy Systems.
The lab’s purpose is to identify the most efficient use of energy and bridge the gap between hydrocarbon sources and future energy sources, Cocke explained. It will be decades before all possibilities of renewable energy come to fruition. “There will be transitional technology to the energy future,” he said. “We have to be smart—clean and smart. We need to be more efficient with current and future forms of energy.”
Benson’s latest research deals with capturing carbon dioxide and using it as an energy source. The process for converting carbon dioxide into useful fuels and chemicals is called tri-reforming. “The beauty of this technique is that exhaust gases from refineries and electricity generation plants can be used directly without the need to separate the CO2 from the other components such as steam and nitrogen,” Benson said. “By avoiding these costly separation steps, CO2 conversion can be accomplished more economically.”
In short, tri-reforming takes these exhaust gases, mixes additional natural gas and air and, through a chemical reaction, produces synthesis gas, also known as syngas. Syngas is a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The hydrogen and carbon monoxide are then used to produce methanol and fuel-grade chemical compounds. The processes that utilize syngas are fairly mature; however, the tri-reforming process is a new concept. “My team is working to understand and overcome the fundamental challenges of this new reaction paradigm,” Benson said. “We believe this will be a much more economical route towards CO2 sequestration than the capture-and-store method that is usually thought of when talking about CO2 sequestration.”
The center’s research will affect the future of energy. “The heart of chemical-energy processes is catalysis and catalytic materials,” Benson said. “Lamar will continue to seek new catalysts that will propel the new energy systems that we need to be energy independent. The new laboratory will have some of the best catalyst synthesis testing and characterization instruments available in Texas focused on our energy future.”