The Food-Energy-Water (FEW) Nexus, from a global perspective, can be described as interconnected resource systems of food, energy, and water. As the world's population expands to the expected 9 billion by 2050, there will be a need to balance different resources across these three systems to obtain different user goals without putting undue strain on the ecosystems that provide these resources. Both food and water sectors rely heavily on the availability of inexpensive energy. As a consequence, carbon dioxide emissions resulting from water treatment and transport, agricultural practices, and food processing, storage, packaging, and transportation represent an entry point to relieve some of the stresses of interrelated food, energy, and water systems. In collaboration with researchers at Tianjin University in China, the Jiao research laboratory will design an electorlysis system that uses a copper catalyst to convert carbon dioxide and water to carbon-based fuels. This device, once scaled up, could potentially reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the use of the carbon-neutral solar electricity. Such a system could lower the environmental impact of the fossil-fuel industry and reduce the need for water and land-intensive alternatives such as biofuel crops, and thus, increase the nation's energy, food, and water security.

The Food-Energy-Water (FEW) Nexus is the compilation of the nitrogen, carbon, phosphorous, and water cycles interacting in equilibrium. Due to optimization of individual components of FEW systems in isolation, these cycles are quickly being pushed beyond the limit of their natural equilibria. One remedy to this challenge is to bring the four major cycles back into equilibrium by developing novel, renewable energy powered and efficient technologies. Through close collaboration with the Chinese research partners at Tianjin University, the Jiao research group at the University of Delaware will design a solar-driven catalysis system capable of producing liquid carbon fuels from CO2 and H2O. The key objectives of the proposed work are to: (1) rationally design and synthesize catalysts for electrochemical CO2 reduction with a high selectivity for liquid C2/C3 products; (2) develop and evaluate an integrated PV/CO2 electrolysis reactor prototype; (3) perform techno-economic analysis to identify the key technical gaps for implementation; and (4) conduct life-cycle analysis to determine the reduction in CO2 emissions and environmental impacts. Starting with a computationally-driven Cu-catalyst design, the US and Chinese researchers will synthesize and analyze nanostructured CO2 catalysts for a solar-powered electrolyzer device. To test multiple designs, the Chinese researchers will 3D print different electrochemical cells for performance screening to optimize the design for CO2 reduction. The Jiao laboratory, using modeling methods, will evaluate these different prototypes for optimal performance to reduce the number of design iterations. The proposed research has the potential to be transformative and impact many fronts. Specifically, the research will develop a computation-driven approach to enable and accelerate the rational design of advanced electrocatalysts for CO2 conversion and beyond; (2) create a new strategy of reaction and process design to overcome the fundamental challenges associated with electrochemical CO2 conversion, which could be extended to other important chemical processes, such as dinitrogen reduction to ammonia and methane partial oxidation reaction; (3) generate insights into design and engineering solar-powered CO2 electrolysis processes at the device and system level; (4) provide the research community with reliable models to assess the potential economic and environmental impacts of CO2 electrolysis technology. This collaboration will lead to new knowledge that will help both the US and China greatly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, thereby providing an effective tool to close the carbon cycle and relieve a major stress on the FEW Nexus. Further, the ties fostered via this collaborative effort between the US and the Chinese teams will enhance the understanding of researchers of the other country?s academic/research environment and lead to shared future endeavors.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

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University of Delaware
United States
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