NSMU engineers in collaborative research to develop new carbon dioxide technologies

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Meng Zhou, assistant professor of chemical and materials engineering, leads the NMSU portion of a four-university, $6 million project to harness carbon dioxide emissions and use them to produce energy and high-value chemicals. (Photo by Vladimir Avina)

LAS CRUCES, New Mexico (KTSM) – New Mexico State University has joined three other universities on a $6 million project that aims to address the challenges associated with carbon dioxide.

Alongside NMSU, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the University of New Mexico, and West Virginia University are working on the Tri-State Research Institute of Manufacturing for Managing CO2. The project focuses on challenges with carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere and ocean due to technological advances over the past century driven by the use of carbon-rich fossil fuels.

The result of global emissions presents a historic threat to the ecosystem and life on our planet, as well as a historic economic opportunity to develop methods to capture and utilize carbon dioxide, NMSU officials said.

The proposed research goal is to create innovative manufacturing processes to advance carbon capture and utilization and entails the development of three cutting-edge technologies that will: capture carbon dioxide while producing electricity, utilize carbon dioxide for storing electric energy and convert carbon dioxide to high-value chemicals that can be used in the production of other materials.

Meng Zhou, assistant professor of chemical and materials engineering, is leading New Mexico State University on the three-state project.

NMSU’s research will focus on the capture of carbon dioxide during the production of energy. Zhou’s research focuses on electrochemical storage and conversion devices such as fuel cells, supercapacitors, and batteries. His research has been published in high-impact journals and has drawn the attention of the lead institution for this project, which led to NMSU’s inclusion in the research.

“CO2 is an important topic, photosynthesis heavily relies on the concentration of CO2, but too much CO2 in the air will cause troubles such as the greenhouse effect and extreme climate. It is important to capture the excess CO2 in air and store it for applications,” Zhou said. “The traditional way, like condensing at low temperature, is costly and tedious. It is my interest to use the electrochemical device, Molten Carbonate Fuel Cell (MCFC), to collect CO2 from tail gas of industry plants while producing electricity.”

His process results in high purity carbon dioxide (greater than 95%) that releases electrons which flows through an external circuit forming electricity. Zhou will design, build and test an improved MCFC.

In 2019, ExxonMobil signed a $60 million agreement with FuelCell Energy to apply the MCFC to capture carbon dioxide and produce electricity. However, several issues presented a hurdle for the development of an MCFC. The NMSU team aims to tackle these issues and enhance the overall cell performance by optimizing structure, selecting advanced catalysts, and synthesizing suitable electrode materials. Undergraduate and graduate students and postdoc researchers will be actively involved in this project, NMSU officials said.

Other NMSU participants in the project are Hongmei Luo, professor of chemical and materials engineering and associate dean of research, whose research interest is in the design, fabrication, and use of nanomaterials and surface modification in energy systems. Luo is an experienced administrator and will participate in the management team.

Delia Valles-Rosales, professor of industrial engineering, has extensive experience in manufacturing research, teaching and outreach, especially in energy sector, and will scale the MCFC up from lab level to industry level. Valles-Rosales will lead the education and outreach activities for NMSU.

The NMSU team is also actively involved in parts of other research thrusts led by other universities: Zhou will contribute to the reactor design; Luo will work on electrode surface treatment; Valles-Rosales will participate in scale-up and modeling.

Along with technological creation, the participating organizations are committed to train and develop internationally competitive scientists by offering cutting-edge science and solid experience in education. Research and educational prowess are vital to providing the next generation with the necessary tools and competencies to achieve long-term success in industry and academia, NMSU officials said.

The three states involved in the project, which all rank highly in per capita carbon dioxide emissions, also have recently invested in a number of statewide initiatives or received significant outside investments to address carbon dioxide challenges. The research program will benefit from close interaction with industry and collaboration with national research centers, including the National Energy Technology Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory.

The buildup of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere presents a massive challenge, but these researchers contend, “if managed well, it also represents a historic opportunity: capture and utilization of CO2 is arguably the largest economic opportunity of the next hundred years, also known as ‘industry of the future’.”

NMSU was awarded $1.3 million for its contribution to the four-year project funded by the National Science Foundation through Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research.

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