National Science Foundation funds collaborative effort to reimagine creation of chemicals and fuels
A $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation will help a team of scientists at the University of Illinois develop ways to use renewable energy to remediate carbon dioxide emissions and generate chemical building blocks and liquid fuels.
The main idea of their proposal is to reimagine the manufacturing of chemicals and fuels as society shifts from using petroleum for these processes to renewable sources such as biomass and carbon dioxide. David Flaherty, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and Dow Chemical Faculty Scholar, said he and his colleagues have been laying the intellectual groundwork for this proposal over the past several years.
The team is comprised of five faculty members at the University of Illinois including Flaherty, Andrew Gewirth (chemistry), Paul Kenis (chemical and biomolecular engineering), Joaquín Rodríguez-López (chemistry), and Ashlynn Stillwell (civil and environmental engineering).
The team’s proposal was selected among hundreds of others in a rigorous review process for the grant through National Science Foundation’s Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation Research Projects program. Their concept uses renewable energy that comes off the grid from solar or wind power to drive an electrochemical reactor that performs two useful reactions simultaneously.
First, they use one side of the reactor to reduce carbon dioxide to form molecules currently used to make durable goods such as plastics. This will reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions. However, reducing carbon dioxide requires a large amount of energy, because these reactions are thermodynamically unfavorable, Flaherty said. The challenge here is turning a stable molecule such as carbon dioxide into a much less stable molecule, he said.
“Another way to think about this is that we are trying to reverse the combustion process that is used to generate energy to move cars or produce electricity in power plants,” Flaherty said.
Second, the other side of the reactor partially oxidizes (or burns) renewable and abundant materials that are locally available. The energy captured from this process helps drive the reduction of carbon dioxide while the oxidation reaction produces useful chemicals.
“We have to change our approach for making building block chemicals,” Flaherty said. “How do we manufacture chemicals and create fuels and energy that will support all the things we enjoy doing but doing it in a distributed manner that aligns with the location of emerging resources? We need to move away from these hundred-acre petroleum refineries and find solutions that work at smaller scales.”
Kenis, the Elio E.Tarika Endowed Chair in Chemical Engineering, found a way to reduce carbon dioxide that would decrease the amount of renewable energy necessary for the process by up to 50 percent. He found that by coupling the carbon dioxide reduction with a more favorable type of chemistry on the other side of the reactor, the amount of energy necessary will greatly decrease.
“Electrolysis is seen as an option for industry to change over from the present plants to electrolysis processes,” Kenis said.
He added that, as part of the Paris Accord, the chemical industry is in an energy transition from 2020 to 2050 in which the dependency on fossil fuels and the associated carbon dioxide production must be decreased.
This is a win-win-win scenario, Flaherty said. If successful, they will efficiently reduce greenhouse gas emissions, produce renewable chemicals and fuels, and create new job opportunities for operators and engineers in an emerging distributive chemical manufacturing economy.
“We are going to learn so much from each other along the way,” Flaherty said. “We all have our own perspectives, our own expertise, and this is an awesome opportunity for us to tackle a critical challenge. In addition, this will be an excellent way for us to teach students a diverse set of skills they need to solve important societal problems.”
Congratulations to Paul Kenis for being selected for the Electrochemical Society’s 2020 Energy Technology Division Research Award.
The award recognizes outstanding and original contributions to the science and technology of energy related research areas that include scientific and technological aspects of fossil fuels and alternative energy sources, energy management and environmental consequences of energy utilization.
Kenis, Elio E. Tarika Chair in Chemical Engineering and Department Head, will be formally recognized with the award at the ECS meeting in Spring 2020 in Montreal. At that meeting he will also deliver a presentation about his work.
His research revolves around microchemical systems. Applications range from platforms for energy conversion such as fuel cells, for radiolabeling of biomolecules, and for protein/pharmaceutical crystallization to platforms for cell biology studies. Over the last decade, he has focused on the electrocatalytic reduction of CO2 to valuable chemical intermediates and fuels—developing suitable catalysts, electrodes, and electrolyzers, determining suitable operation conditions, and performing techno-economic analysis as a guide toward more energy-efficient systems.
Kenis is a coauthor of reports on the prospects of CO2 utilization at scale issued by the National Academies as well as the global Mission Innovation consortium. He also is an investigator at the International Institute for Carbon-Neutral Energy Research, a collaboration between Kyushu University in Japan and the University of Illinois.
Congratulations to Paul Kenis, who has been named Fellow of the Electrochemical Society!
Kenis, the Elio E. Tarika Endowed Chair and head of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, was cited for his exceptional contributions to the invention, characterization and development of innovative processes based on microfluidic systems for diverse applications in electrochemical energy conversion, chemical synthesis, and biology.
Each year, up to 15 renowned scientists and engineers are chosen by their peers for this honor. Fellow status will be conferred at the ECS meeting this fall in Atlanta.
Kenis’ research revolves around microchemical systems. Applications range from platforms for energy conversion such as fuel cells, for radiolabeling of biomolecules, and for protein/pharmaceutical crystallization to platforms for cell biology studies.
Over the last decade, he has focused on the electrocatalytic reduction of CO2 to valuable chemical intermediates and fuels—developing suitable catalysts, electrodes, and electrolyzers, determining suitable operation conditions, and performing techno-economic analysis as a guide toward more energy-efficient systems.
He is a coauthor of reports on the prospects of CO2 utilization at scale issued by the National Academies as well as the global Mission Innovation consortium. He also is an investigator at the International Institute for Carbon-Neutral Energy Research, a collaboration between Kyushu University in Japan and the University of Illinois.
Kenis, a native of the Netherlands, received his BS in Chemistry from Nijmegen Radboud University, where he worked on model systems for metalloproteins with Roeland Nolte, and his PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Twente, working with David Reinhoudt on films for nonlinear optical applications. His postdoctoral research with George Whitesides at Harvard University focused on the then-emerging area of microfluidics.
He has authored over 200 peer-reviewed publications and 14 patents. He has been recognized with a 3M Young Faculty Award, an NSF CAREER Award, a Xerox Award, and best paper awards from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine.
Congratulations to PhD student Sakat Bhargava who was recently chosen to receive a Link Foundation Energy Fellowship for 2019-2021.
Bhargava joined the PhD program at the University of Illinois Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Fall 2017 and is a member of the Kenis Lab. His research project is entitled, “Intensifying the CO2 Electrolysis Process.”
Many carbon-based chemicals are still produced by the traditional fossil-fuel based processes. These processes generate a lot of greenhouse gases and are thus, unsustainable in the long-term. Electrochemical reduction of CO2 is a promising alternative approach to producing those carbon-based chemicals in a much greener and sustainable way. However, despite lots of progress, the current CO2 electrolyzer performance is not sufficient for this technology to be economically feasible at industrial scales. Bhargava’s research seeks to maximize the CO2 electroreduction catalyst utilization through a combination of electrochemical engineering, reactor engineering, process design, and process intensification approaches in an alkaline flow electrolyzer.
“Eventually, we will use the knowledge gained here to propose design rules for scaling this process,” he said.
The Link Foundation, established in 1953 by Edwin A. and Marion C. Link, supports programs to foster the theoretical basis, practical knowledge, and application of energy, simulation, and ocean engineering and instrumentation research, and to disseminate the results of that research through lectures, seminars and publications.
Surplus industrial carbon dioxide creates an opportunity to convert waste into a valuable commodity. Excess CO2 can be a feedstock for chemicals typically derived from fossil fuels, but the process is energy-intensive and expensive. University of Illinois chemical engineers have assessed the technical and economic feasibility of a new electrolysis technology that uses a cheap biofuel byproduct to reduce the energy consumption of the waste-to-value process by 53 percent.
The new findings are published in the journal Nature Energy.
Conversion of CO2 to chemicals like ethylene for plastics is possible through a process called electrochemical reduction. Typically, a stream of CO2 gas and a fluid electrolyte move through an electrolysis cell that breaks the CO2 down into molecules like ethylene on the cathode, but it also produces oxygen from water on the anode, the researchers said.
“About 90 percent of the energy required in conventional CO2 reduction is used up by the oxygen-producing, anode side of an electrolysis cell,” said Paul Kenis, a chemical and biomolecular engineering professor, department chair and study co-author. “But there is no big market for the excess oxygen, so 90 percent of the energy is essentially wasted.”
Finding a feed material that reduces the energy to drive the anode reaction could be a strategy for radically reducing the energy requirements of CO2 conversion, according to a recent National Academies Report of which Kenis was a co-author.
The new study proposes glycerol – an organic byproduct of sugar cane biofuel production that requires less energy to oxidize – as an alternative to the energy-intensive oxygen-producing step.
To test if the new electrolysis technique has the potential to push the full CO2 conversion process to a carbon neutral or negative budget, the researchers examined the cost and energy consumption for the production cycle of the waste-to-value process. The four-step cycle includes the capture of industrial CO2 waste gas, the input of electricity, the new electrolysis reaction, and the separation and processing of the final chemical products.
“Our model uses the current electrical grid setup as the source of electricity to make the scenario more realistic,” Kenis said. “Being able to drive CO2 conversion with already-in-place infrastructure – and not relying on the hope of the future grid being powered by 100 percent renewables – while achieving carbon neutrality or negativity could be a holy grail scenario.”
The analysis includes best- and worst-case CO2 emissions and energy consumption scenarios and concludes that the prospects of CO2 reduction, in terms of CO2 emissions and economics, can drastically improve by looking beyond conventional anode reactions.
“The glycerol-based electrolysis reaction shows a lot of promise. However, we will continue to explore other organic waste materials because even when production rises in the wake of increased biofuel production, it still will not be enough to fully support the need,” Kenis said. “The good news is that the chemistry involved is flexible and there are a lot of organic waste products that can do the job.”
Many researchers focus on improving the selectivity and activity of chemical catalysts for CO2 reduction reactions, and that work needs to continue, said Sumit Verma, a former chemical and biomolecular engineering graduate student and study co-author. “Looking beyond oxygen evolution at the anode seems like a win-win situation, as we not only reduce the processes’ energy consumption but also produce a second valuable product stream,” he said.
The International Institute for Carbon Neutral Energy Research; Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology; Dow Chemical Company; and the Glenn E. and Barbara R. Ullyot graduate fellowship supported this research.
To reach Paul Kenis, call 217-625-0523; firstname.lastname@example.org.
The paper “Co-electrolysis of CO2 and glycerol as a pathway to carbon chemicals with improved technoeconomics due to low electricity consumption” is available from the U. of I. News Bureau. DOI: 10.1038/s41560-019-0374-6
Paul Kenis has been named the Elio Eliakim Tarika Endowed Chair of Chemical Engineering in a ceremony honoring his success and leadership in the field.
Kenis, head of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees in his native country of the Netherlands before completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. Kenis joined Illinois in 2000 and began researching microchemical systems with applications in energy and biology.
Since joining the department, Kenis has received an Excellence in Teaching Award from the School of Chemical Sciences, has been recognized with a 3M young faculty award, an NSF career award, a Xerox award, as well as best paper awards from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the Society of Experimental Biology and Medicine. In 2011, he was named a University Scholar.
“Paul is a renowned scholar and his work has won him numerous accolades,” said Feng Sheng Hu, the Harry E. Preble Dean of the College of LAS. “I came across his name in 2010 during my time on the selection committee for the University Scholar award. I remember that I was so impressed by Paul’s productivity, innovations and discoveries… Since then, his scholarship has only grown.”
The late Nancy Louise Ertle Tarika established the Elio Eliakim Tarika Endowed Chair in Chemical Engineering to honor her husband, Elio (BS, ’49, chemical engineering) and to support his alma mater.
Elio Tarika was born in Cairo, Egypt and grew up on an island in Greece. He attended a private high school in Great Britain before crossing the Atlantic on the first so-called Liberty ship, a cargo ship built in the United States, that sailed from Egypt after World War II.
“At the urging of his father, he emigrated to the United States after World War II to study chemical engineering,” said John Sweedler, the James R. Eiszner Family Endowed Chair in Chemistry and director of the School of Chemical Sciences. “While on the Liberty ship en route across the Atlantic, Elio discussed his college choices with American soldiers. On his list were Cornell, MIT, CalTech, and Illinois. The G.I.s told him if he wanted to get a true sense of this country, he should go to its heart, the Midwest. Based on their enthusiastic recommendations, he enrolled in the University of Illinois.”
While the Tarikas have both passed away, Sweedler emphasized that their generosity endures.
“Mr. Tarika was drawn to Illinois because of the university’s reputation and the promise of receiving an excellent education here. By establishing this endowment, the Tarikas have continued to advance the Illinois legacy of excellence,” Sweedler said. “Their financial support has helped us attract and retain creative and ambitious scholars like Professor Kenis and as a result, the educational experience of our students has also been enriched. The Tarikas have made a lasting, sustainable impact on future generations of chemical engineers, and for that we are grateful.”
Currently, Kenis’ research focuses on the development of continuous flow reactor technology for the synthesis of semiconducting quantum dots, and microfluidic platforms that enable either the study of the epi-endothelial junction of the lung or fast imaging of protein folding events, such as those associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
“I’m very grateful for the gift and what the resulting endowment allows my group to do going forward: pursue a risky idea for which we do not have funding yet,” Kenis said. “I would also like to thank my colleagues for providing an inspiring environment. This is a place that if you have good ideas and emphasize why and how you’ll achieve that, we can reach great things. It’s truly an honor to get this recognition for all the work we do — we, past and present.”
Kenis also thanked his partner, chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Mary Kraft, for her support.
Written by Samantha Jones Toal
Dr. Jonathan Sweedler, director of the School of Chemical Sciences, has announced two new chairs in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.
Dr. Paul J. A. Kenis, currently the William H. and Janet G. Lycan Professor will be the Elio Eliakim Tarika Endowed Chair in Chemical Engineering. Dr. Hong Yang, the Richard C. Alkire Professor, will be the Richard C. Alkire Chair in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.
Both chair appointments will start in August 2018, and investitures are being planned for Fall 2018. Investiture as a named chair or professor is one of the highest honors a faculty member can receive, and the selection process requires careful and critical examination of an individual’s career.
Paul J. A. Kenis – Elio Eliakim Tarika Endowed Chair in Chemical Engineering
The Elio Eliakim Tarika Endowed Chair in Chemical Engineering, or “Tarika Chair,” recognizes excellence in research and was created in honor of Elio Tarika by his late wife, Nancy Tarika. Elio was a native of Cairo, Egypt, who arrived in the U.S. on the first Liberty ship that sailed from Alexandria, Egypt, after World War II. He obtained his BS in Chemical Engineering from Illinois in 1949, then had a long and successful career as a researcher and executive in the chemical industry, mostly with Union Carbide. In 1990, Elio retired as chairman of the board of the Viskase Corporation.
Kenis graduated from Radboud University in Nijmegen, The Netherlands with a B.S. in Chemistry in 1993. He then earned a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Twente, The Netherlands in 1997. He was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University under George Whitesides from December 1997 to August 2000. He then joined the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering faculty at the University of Illinois as an Assistant Professor, and has been a full Professor since 2010, serving as the department’s head since 2011.
His research focuses on the development of microchemical systems to study fundamental phenomena (including protein chemistry and cell biology) as well as a wide range of applications in energy conversion and chemical synthesis. Most recently his efforts have focused on microreactors for the synthesis of semiconducting nanoparticles, microfluidic approaches to study protein folding as well as protein and pharmaceutical crystallization, and, most prominently, on developing catalysts, electrodes, and electrolyzers for the efficient electrocatalytic reduction of carbon dioxide to value-added chemicals.
Hong Yang – Richard Alkire Chair in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
The Richard Alkire Chair in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, or “Alkire Chair,” recognizes expertise and academic abilities within the field of chemical engineering. The predecessor of this named position was established by Charles J. and Dorothy G. Prizer. Mr. Prizer received a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Illinois and spent the majority of his professional career serving in a variety of executive roles for the Rohm & Haas Company, including corporate vice president in several divisions and ultimately retiring as Vice President and Regional Director of Corporate Operations, North America Region. The present chair has been established in honor of Professor Alkire, in part aided by the generosity of alumni and friends of Dr. Alkire, who joined the department in 1969. Alkire, the Charles J. and Dorothy G. Prizer Chair Emeritus, is a member of the National Academy of Engineering.
Dr. Yang graduated from Tsinghua University, Beijing, China, with a B.S. in Chemistry in 1989. He earned his M.S. from the University of Victoria in 1994, and his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto in 1998. He then was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University under George Whitesides from September 1998 to June 2001. He joined the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering faculty at the University of Illinois as a full professor in 2012.
His current research efforts are focused on new nanostructures (size, shape, composition and surface) that allow the change of electron band property and the surface atomic arrangement of the metal catalyst by incorporating or changing other metal elements. These synthetic capabilities allow for the chemisorption of the oxygen containing intermediates that have the largest impact on the kinetics for oxygen reduction and evolution reactions and improving the catalyst activity and stability for applications in hydrogen fuel cell, battery, and electrolyzer for hydrogen production through water splitting.
Congratulations to Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering students who have been awarded National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships!
Launched in 1952, the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship program is the nation’s oldest and largest fellowship program for graduate students. It is also one of the most prestigious.
This year Danielle Harrier, ChBE PhD student with Dr. Damien Guironnet’s research group, was awarded a fellowship. Two members of Dr. Brendan Harley’s lab—ChBE senior Elijah Karvelis and MatSE grad student Marley Dewey—were awarded fellowships. Kevin Cheng, a Biophysics graduate student and member of Dr. Diwakar Shukla’s lab, also won the fellowship.
Harrier’s research with Assistant Professor Guironnet focuses on the development of a strategy to synthesize biodegradable polymer latex by emulsion ring opening polymerization.
“The technical challenge of this approach is to perform the water sensitive polymerization in an aqueous media. Therefore, the innovative aspect of my strategy is that I will utilize microfluidics techniques to encapsulate the catalyst in a hydrophobic nanoreactor and thus protect it from water,” she said.
Harrier completed her undergraduate studies at the University of New Mexico and began the PhD program in Chemical Engineering in Fall 2017.
“The research at U of I is at the forefront of understanding and solving current global issues, and I am excited to add to the breadth and depth of research being done by my PI, Professor Guironnet, by furthering research in sustainable polymers,” she said.
Elijah Karvelis graduates this May and plans to pursue a PhD. He is currently deciding between three schools.
His project in the Harley lab has been on developing biomaterial platforms for studying brain cancer, specifically leveraging microfluidics to look at invasion of cancerous cells.
The NSF awarded honorable mentions to ChBE graduate students Isamar Pastrana-Otero (Kraft Lab), Bijal Patel (Diao Lab) and Whitney Sinclair (Kenis Group).
Congratulations to alumnus Fikile Brushett, PhD ’10, who was featured among C&EN’s “Talented Twelve,” an annual compilation of rising stars who are tackling some of the toughest scientific challenges facing the world today.
Brushett earned his PhD in 2010; his advisor was Paul Kenis, William H. and Janet G. Lycan Professor and Department Head. Brushett is currently on the Chemical Engineering faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where his research group’s mission is to develop transformative electrochemical technologies that enable a sustainable energy economy.
C&EN called Brushett a “baron of batteries.” He was included on the list for combining chemistry and modeling to advance energy storage devices. When asked to provide advice for young scientists, Brushett shared the following quote.
“The most interesting and important problems exist at the interface of multiple disciplines. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and to step outside your comfort zone,” he said.
The Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering is pleased to share with alumni and friends the most recent edition of Mass Transfer, the magazine for alumni and friends.
In this issue you will find inspiring stories about the trailblazing Chung Sul Youn Kim (Sue Kim), who received her bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering at Illinois in 1955 and went on to work in industry and academia, and Steve McLin, from the Class of 1968, who became a financial engineer and leader in the banking industry. We catch up with Dr. Anthony McHugh, a Chemical Engineering professor at Illinois from 1979-2002 to learn about what he’s been up to. We highlight new research, share photos from spring convocation, and much more!