July 07, 2016

Center funds three energy-related studies

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. – A Southern Illinois University Carbondale center dedicated to finding energy solutions for tomorrow is funding three studies by researchers that are designed to increase efficiency and preserve the environment. 

The Advanced Coal and Energy Research Center is funding each of the cross-disciplinary studies at about $50,000 apiece during the next year.  The studies are funded by the $4.6 million Energy Boost grant, which established ACERC and supports its mission of creating a new interdisciplinary academic unit charged with advancing technology while training a workforce to implement new energy solutions in the future.  

The studies include one aimed at harvesting energy from the ambient vibration in machinery to power multiple electrical loads. Another seeks to develop materials that will capture and convert greenhouse gases into chemical fuels. The third will explore ways to electrochemically assist the production of methane from coal using microbial electrolysis cell systems. 

Christopher Cooley and Tan Chai, assistant professors of mechanical engineering and energy processes, and Tsuchin Chu, professor of mechanical engineering and energy processes, will conduct a study titled “Vibration Energy Harvesting Devices for Simultaneously Powering Multiple Electrical Loads.” It seeks to build on existing technology that harvests energy from ambient vibrations, which could then be used for sensors and electronics. 

Current designs for such systems are limited to powering a single sensor or electrical load, while most condition-monitoring systems require multiple sensors and data transmitters. 

“There is a critical need for advanced vibration energy harvesters for systems like these,” the researchers wrote in their proposal for the ACERC grant. “Without these devices, the application of vibration energy harvesting to engineered systems is limited. Our long-term goal is to develop efficient, high-power output vibration energy harvesting devices for condition-monitoring systems and smart structures.” 

The proposal calls for the team to analyze and experiment with the dynamics, vibration and power generation of vibration energy harvesters that simultaneously provide power to multiple electrical loads. The researchers hope the preliminary data will provide fodder for a strong grant proposal to the National Science Foundation that would fund further study. 

Pravas Deria, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and Qingfeng Ge, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, will team up on a project titled “Hybrid Porous Materials Relevant for Selective Capture and Catalytic and Electrocatalytic Conversion of Greenhouse Gases to Chemical Fuels.” 

The researchers will focus on finding ways to recycle certain greenhouse gases into fuel, basically using solar power to drive the conversion and storing the energy in the chemicals. The stored energy can then be used in transportation and other applications when solar power is not practical or available. 

They will do so by developing a new class of self-assembled, nanoscale porous structures with select properties that will allow them to capture greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane. They will then use solar energy to convert the gases to chemical fuel, thereby storing it in the form of chemical energy. 

Solar power has been the subject of major research efforts during the last decade, but it remains limited by the performance of photovoltaic materials and the availability of the sun on cloudy days and at night. 

“Photo- and/or electrocatalytic solar fuel production is an attractive complementary research theme to overcome the issues pertaining to this inconsistent availability of sunlight for photovoltaics,” the researchers wrote in their proposal. “Likewise, concurrent efforts to reduce greenhouse gases … are of equal importance to the environment.” 

The researchers noted that although carbon dioxide sequestration and using more natural gas are both more environmentally friendly, the processes face technological challenges that bring into question the economic viability of both. 

“Developing novel and efficient technology to remove, recycle, or transform these greenhouse gases into useful fuels are of tremendous importance to a sustainable development globally,” they wrote. 

Mohtashim Shamsi, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and Yanna Liang, professor of civil and environmental engineering, are collaborating on a project titled “Exploring Electrochemically Assisted Methane Production from Coal by Microbial Electrolysis Cell Systems.” The project seeks to use so-called microbial electrolysis cell (MEC) systems, built with a 3D printer, to convert coal and carbon dioxide into cleaner-burning methane gas. 

The researchers pointed to the need to reduce greenhouse gases from main contributors such as coal-fired power plants as the impetus for their study. They aim to combine biogasification – the process by which microbes eat organic material such as coal and excrete methane – and carbon capture and utilization, which seeks to convert carbon dioxide into a less harmful, more useful product. 

MEC systems, which have never been tested in this application, can generate hydrogen and methane from organic material using the application of an electrical current. It will be the first time anyone has combined the concepts of coal gasification and carbon capture and utilization. Shamsi’s laboratory will design and produce the MEC reactors and also provide electrochemical expertise during the project. Liang’s laboratory will develop and grow the desired microbial communities to inoculate the MEC cells and monitor the reactors.