April 18, 2022 – President Joe Biden signed an executive order in mid-December 2021 outlining how the U.S. will leverage its scale and procurement power and lead by example in tackling the climate crises. He is committed to investing in clean energy innovation, with a focus on strategic research areas like clean transportation, clean industrial processes and clean materials.
Across the country, and here at UCI, the pursuit of sustainable energy approaches is fueling a flurry of novel research in the area of decarbonization technologies. A large portion of the Samueli School’s chemical and biomolecular engineering energy-focused faculty now reside in the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Building (ISEB).
Chancellor’s Professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering Plamen Atanassov explains the approach: “We have to decarbonize the electrical grid, the transportation sector and the manufacturing industry. If you’re a chemical engineer, you’ll focus on decarbonizing the manufacturing industry, electrical engineers will work on decarbonizing the grid, and mechanical engineers will work on decarbonizing transportation. ISEB gives us the opportunity to bring all these people together.”
The team is driven to decarbonize the U.S. energy system by 2050, which aligns with the national effort set forth by the Biden administration.
“Although our expertise is different, we are united by the same goal,” says Iryna Zenyuk, CBE associate professor and associate director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center. “Our projects span length and time scales from atomic to devices, and our expertise is complementary in many ways, allowing us to freely collaborate.”
CBE Professor Vojislav Stamenkovic studies reaction processes on ideal surfaces, providing fundamental insight into electrocatalysis. Atanassov designs novel materials for various electrochemical processes for carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen cycles. Ali Mohraz, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, uses bijel technology to improve transport in metal-air batteries. Zenyuk integrates various components into energy devices and provides understanding of limiting factors by using modeling and extensive testing and advanced characterization.
With CBE energy-focused labs next to each other, Zenyuk, Atanassov and Stamenkovic work together to design fuel cell systems that are cost-effective and durable. Some of these systems will end up with carbon capture, conversion and storage solutions. And these labs share the wing with electrochemist Shane Ardo’s lab.
“Traditional disciplines were developed like silos, but have broadened in recent years,” says Ardo, associate professor of chemistry. “This means that the curriculum in each discipline now overlaps more than ever, yet the root teaching in each discipline comes from different historical upbringings. This leads to people who speak different academic languages, even though all principles in these fields arise from the same core set of underlying physical laws of the universe.”
The CBE professors emphasize they like to work with people who are offering up nontraditional solutions like Stacy Copp, assistant professor of materials science and engineering; Allon Hochbaum, associate professor of materials science and engineering; and Jenny Yang, Chancellor’s Professor of chemistry.
“The energy challenges don’t care about our notions of what is physics, what is chemistry or what is engineering,” says Copp. “I’m excited to be a member of the research community at UCI because removing these artificial disciplinary walls allows us to approach problems in creative new ways, and that, ultimately, is how innovation happens.”
Researchers are focusing on historically difficult to decarbonize sectors, such as heavy-duty transportation, cement making and chemical manufacturing. Zenyuk and her colleagues are using electrochemistry and electrochemical engineering as tools to solve these energy problems. She explains, “Electrochemical technologies have a great potential to substitute thermochemical processes (such as fossil fuel burning), as they have higher efficiencies (little waste heat), lower to no greenhouse gas emissions, and they operate using clean electricity (solar and wind).”
Zenyuk points to examples like hydrogen fuel cells, batteries, water electrolyzers and carbon dioxide (CO2) reduction electrolyzers. She acknowledges that challenges of cost and durability have to be overcome. “But for many of these, we are almost at a cost-parity with fossil fuel technologies,” she says. “For example, for heavy-duty transportation, such as trucks, hydrogen fuel cells can have a significant impact, as hydrogen is light and does not add to the payload. The fuel cell vehicle recharges in minutes, and it emits zero greenhouse gas emissions.”
Atanassov and Zenyuk’s research groups are also collaborating on novel ways to convert carbon dioxide electrochemically into useful products, such as a mix of carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen, called “syngas,” formate, acetate and other chemicals. She adds that colleagues from different fields are approaching the problem from various perspectives: Yang is designing novel molecular catalysts for this same problem, and Ardo focuses more on carbon capture solutions through porous media design.
Zenyuk is also working with Mo Li, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, on NSF-funded research on clean cement manufacturing from renewable energy. And they collaborate on a DOE-funded project with the largest U.S. electrolyzer manufacturer Nel Hydrogen to enable large-scale deployment of megawatt-scale electrolyzers.
“These are real-world problems and we believe that deep decarbonization will require diverse technologies and approaches,” says Zenyuk. “It is exciting to be a colleague to such great scientists and to see the diversity of ideas they offer.”
Additionally, finding solutions to decarbonize difficult sectors requires a much-needed engineering and clean-energy workforce to help transition the economy. “We want our students to graduate and be ready to design new batteries, solar cells and electrolyzers,” Zenyuk adds. “Students are super excited to come to the [ISEB] lab, where everything is new and shiny. I think this will be a creativity booster.”
Research efforts are aligned with educational initiatives. Atanassov is leading an educational program that he will convert into a doctoral degree in electrochemical engineering.
“ISEB is an amazing opportunity. I look at this building as something that will propel the collaboration among researchers toward new horizons,” says Atanassov. “Outside of human health, which is always going to be a very important focus, the health of the planet becomes extremely important. It’s all one picture. We’re talking about human health, global impact and human activity in the environment.”
– Tonya Becerra