MAE Seminar: Thermo-Electrochemical Conversion and Storage of Chemicals for a Net-Zero Industrial Sector

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Luca Mastropasqua, Ph.D.

Associate Specialist
Advanced Power and Energy Program and National Fuel Cell Research Center
UC Irvine

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Abstract: Thermo-electrochemical energy conversion and storage (TEECS) systems will soon become ubiquitous, and research focusing on their fundamental electrochemical, thermodynamic and chemical phenomena seeks to optimize their impact. One rich field of research focuses on how to optimally integrate TEECS into functional systems for decarbonizing challenging sectors such as power generation, transportation and industrial processes (e.g., steel, cement, ammonia, pharmaceuticals and chemicals production). These sectors comprise most of the human-made CO2 currently emitted in the atmosphere and constitute the most difficult application to decarbonize via electrification.

In this seminar, we will explore the electrochemical fundamentals, thermodynamic integration, scale-up potential and challenges, and future market penetration characterizing these systems. High-temperature electrochemical cells based on solid oxide or molten salts cation- or anion-conducting materials can in fact be effectively integrated into industrial and power-generation processes. We will discuss the degradation issues associated with galvanic and electrolytic cells, such as electrode redox processes and Ni migration and evaporation in a high-steam environment. The seminar will also introduce the use of experimental techniques such as chronoamperometry and galvanodynamic electrochemical impedance spectroscopy on Ni-YSZ anode-based stacks as an in-operando diagnostic method for galvanic and electrolytic cells. Participants will see how we can use machine-learning methods and distribution of relaxation time techniques to analyze impedance spectra and provide a causality relationship to the degradation phenomena observed. Then we will turn to material characterization techniques, such as scanning electron microscopy and X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to perform post-mortem analysis and confirm the assessment performed in the modelling work.

TEECS operated as electrolysers produce useful products via direct electro-reduction of chemicals with low economic value and can repurpose waste streams into valuable commodities or specialty products. This seminar will examine direct electro-reduction of steam using renewable energy sources for green hydrogen production demonstrating the technical feasibility of direct coupling with fluctuating solar and wind resources. Additionally, electrolysis or co-electrolysis with cheap renewable energy of steam and CO2 and nitrogen into syngas (H2, CO, methane) or other chemical products such as ethylene, ammonia or methanol constitute a unique possibility for decarbonising notoriously difficult-to-decarbonise sectors. Specifically, I will showcase the use of green hydrogen produced in high-temperature electrolysis and co-electrolysis systems to produce renewable steel in direct reduction of iron plant. I will show that this method of producing green steel can outperform conventional ways of steel production both in terms of primary energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Finally, I suggested that current chemical industry manufacturing routes progress with constant but slow improvements already close to their performance limits. New disruptive technologies – possibly electrochemical – are needed to unlock major advancement in chemical manufacturing and process industry.

Bio: Luca Mastropasqua is currently a senior research scientist at UC Irvine’s National Fuel Cell Research Center (NFCRC), a leader in studying electrochemical energy conversion systems for renewable hydrogen and fuel production, power generation, carbon capture and low emission industrial processes. Mastropasqua’s research focuses on how integration of high temperature electrochemical technologies can decarbonize sectors such as aviation, freight, shipping, steel production, data centers and wastewater treatment. Current projects and partnerships include decarbonization of Microsoft data centers with green hydrogen, development of hybrid fuel cell-gas turbine cycles with fuel cell energy and a recent $5.7M award from the U.S. Department of Energy to decarbonize steel production. He has currently published 16 papers in peer-reviewed journals and has written and contributed to numerous conference proceedings.

Mastropasqua has previously worked as a postdoctoral associate at Princeton University, where he worked on integrating molten carbonate fuel cells in the process industry. The project was pursued at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment within the Princeton E-ffiliates Partnership, with funding by ExxonMobil, and with the collaboration of Politecnico di Milano. Mastropasqua received his Ph.D. cum laude from Politecnico di Milano in 2017 in energy and nuclear science and technology with a thesis on “Clean Energy Conversion Systems: High Temperature Solid Oxide Electrochemical Membranes in Advanced Power Generation Applications.”