This project will address the grand challenge of achieving a sustainable global society by moving towards carbon-neutral, energy-efficient, and distributable chemical manufacturing technology. The PIs will develop the scientific principles and technology to make distributed electrochemical reactors that simultaneously remediate CO2 and upgrade stranded regional feedstocks in order to generate commodity chemicals and transportation fuels. Specifically, the electrochemical process will enable the use of renewable energy (e.g., wind and solar power) to consume CO2 emissions from stationary sources (e.g., power plants, chemical refineries) but will do so with lower energy requirements. The team will accomplish this by using a single reactor to consume CO2 and to perform selective oxidation reactions that upgrade regional feedstocks (e.g., biomass, biogas) into useful building block chemicals. The PIs will develop fundamental insight into interfacial chemistry to design new catalysts for electrochemical oxidations; apply reaction engineering principles to increase the productivity and effectiveness of the reactors; and analyze the availability and costs of critical resources to identify promising sets of reactions and reactors for distinct regions in the United States. The team will benefit from the inclusion of persons from underrepresented groups among senior personnel, graduate students, and undergraduate students and will engage local K-9 native Spanish speaker, Girl Scouts of Central Illinois, and other future members of the STEM workforce through unique educational programs related to electrochemistry, manufacturing, and sustainability.

The transformative nature of the proposed research resides in linking the reduction of CO2 with the oxidative upgrading of regional feedstocks in a co-electrolysis process. This effort leverages the team's recent technological advances for energy-efficient flow electrocatalytic reduction of CO2 to C2-products such as ethylene and ethanol under alkaline conditions in tandem with oxidation of waste, such as glycerol from the biofuels industry. Specifically, the PIs will develop molecular insight into surface chemistry and catalysis at anodes in alkaline conditions under flow, by synthesizing and characterizing new electrocatalysts with multifunctional active sites needed for selective oxidations. The team will design, evaluate, and optimize liquid electrolyte and membrane-based co-electrolysis reactors for coupled CO2 reduction and selective oxidations with a focus on process intensification (e.g., by varying temperature, pressure, pH) for reactant-catalyst pairs. The team will use technoeconomic analysis and life cycle assessment (TEA-LCA) with spatially-resolved resource data to quantify system-level water, energy, and greenhouse gas impacts to identify potential opportunities to deploy these co-electrolysis devices via geographic information system based multicriteria decision analysis (GIS-MCDA). Constant feedback between the research thrusts will ensure that surface chemistry informs reactor design and process intensification; the performance metrics update the TEA-LCA; and TEA-LCA guides catalysis and reactor engineering efforts for promising reaction and identifies pressure points for the process. The PIs will deliver multiple co-conversion solutions, each optimized for a distinct geographical region in the US.

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.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Emerging Frontiers (EF)
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Alias Smith
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University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
United States
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