September 19, 2018

Grants help fund research into improving coal power efficiency and reducing greenhouse gasses

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. – Solving tomorrow’s energy needs and challenges is the primary goal of seed grants awarded to several faculty at Southern Illinois University Carbondale by an energy research center on campus.

The Advanced Coal and Energy Research Center recently announced its Energy Boost Seed Grant awardees for 2019. The competitive, peer-reviewed program provides up to $50,000 in initial support for new, long-term energy research that is collaborative, interdisciplinary and has strong potential to attract external funding.

Committees select the winning proposals, which also require applicants to answer the question: “Why is energy important to your future, and the future of the planet?”

Previous awards in 2017 and 2018 supported studies on issues such as harvesting energy from vibrations in machines, to various means of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, to social media’s effects on public perceptions and energy policy.

Into the fire

SIU researchers are working to help improve the efficiency of coal-fired power plants, and their project received $50,000 in funding.

The project aims to develop new types of oxygen concentration sensors that withstand the extremely high heat inside a coal-fired power plant’s combustion chamber. The amount of oxygen present during such combustion indicates the efficiency of the energy conversion happening there, so such sensors could potentially tell us much more about ensuring and designing better efficiency into such plants.

Such sensors, made from gallium oxide – for its extremely high melting temperature – would be wireless, and coupled with other technologies to perform this task. The pilot study, which researchers hope will demonstrate the potential and benefits of gallium oxide-based electronics, could save an estimated $409 million per year.

Chao Lu, assistant professor in SIU’s electrical and computer engineering degree program, is the primary investigator for the project, titled “Development of Gallium Oxide-Based Wireless Smart Sensor Platform for in-situ Oxygen Monitoring in Coal-Fired Power Plants.” He is joined by co-primary investigator Shaikh Ahmed, professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Reducing CO2, creating sustainable energy

Mitigating carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere is a major goal for science. One potential way to do so, while also creating a sustainable energy source, is by using certain varieties of coal bed-dwelling microbes and archaea that turn CO2 into methane gas, which burns much cleaner than many fossil fuels.

Identifying these life forms, commonly known as “methanogens,” as well as the conditions they need to thrive, however, is a challenging process. The interdisciplinary project, therefore, aims to develop and characterize a predictive biosensor that provides an easy, direct readout, further correlates with methane-from-CO2 generation by the methanogens, and ranks this conversion efficiency.

Such a sensor would have a multifaceted impact on CO2 utilization, global climate change and sustainable energy.

Farhan Chowdhury, assistant professor in SIU’s mechanical engineering and energy processes degree programs, is the primary investigator for the project, titled “Predictive Biosensor for CO2 Conversion to Methane and Related Industrially Useful Molecules.” He is joined by co-primary investigators Poopalasingam Sivakumar, assistant professor in SIU’s physics degree program, and Punit Kohli, professor in SIU’s chemistry and biochemistry degree program. The award is for $50,000.