Tag Archives: Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry

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ASU grant aims to transform global energy landscape

Changing the way the nation generates and consumes energy is at the heart of a multimillion dollar grant awarded to Arizona State University from the Department of Energy.

Under the grant, the university will develop an efficient and cost-effective carbon capture technology using an innovative electrochemical technique to separate carbon dioxide from other emissions originating from power plants.

In what could be an economically enabling breakthrough in the drive to reduce carbon emissions, ASU researchers will explore the real possibility of reducing energy and cost requirements by more than half.

Led by Dan Buttry, professor and chair of ASU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the grant is part of a special Department of Energy program designed to pursue high-risk, high-reward advances in alternative energy research.

“Through this type of venture we are working to advance research and spur economic development in the areas of renewable energy and energy security to create solutions that address society’s grand challenges,” said Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, senior vice president for ASU’s Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development. “This innovative project is a collaborative effort of faculty at ASU from multiple disciplines, as well as collaborators from Proton OnSite and the University of Colorado, who are all developing a new carbon capture technology.”

Where solutions happen

Arizona State University has been building its portfolio in alternative energy research for several years, and currently includes among its capabilities a center for research into electrochemistry for renewable energy applications; several advanced programs on solar energy research; one of the leading testing and certification centers for solar energy; and research into solar-generated biofuels, including advanced work on algae-based biofuels.

The university’s awarded grant of $2.9 million over two years follows an initial “seed” grant where the team demonstrated proof of concept of efficient and cost-effective carbon dioxide capture. ASU’s project was selected through a merit-based process from thousands of concept papers and hundreds of full applications.

The projects are based in 24 states, with approximately 47 percent of the projects led by universities – all supported by the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program, which aims to develop clever and creative approaches to transform the global energy landscape while advancing America’s technology leadership.

Inspired by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, ARPA-E was created to support high-risk, high-reward research that can provide transformative new solutions for climate change and energy security.

“The potential of this project to advance solutions to the problem of excessive carbon dioxide in the environment is exciting, and we look forward to the team’s progress in this area,” said Gary Dirks, director of ASU LightWorks. “ASU is a place where the convergence of laboratory research and real-world application creates a unique environment where imaginative energy-related projects are fostered and encouraged.”

A new approach

The carbon capture program was initially supported by ASU LightWorks, which brings together the intellectual expertise across the university centered on leveraging the power of the sun to create solutions in the areas of renewable energy, including generating electricity, alternative fuels and preparing future energy leaders.

“We are extremely excited about this new grant from the Department of Energy ARPA-E program,” said Buttry. “The effort is focused on a key issue in fossil fuel-based energy production – how to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions without consuming too much of the energy content of the fuel. We have recently developed a new approach to carbon dioxide capture that uses an electrochemical process with some design features similar to those in a fuel cell.”

Co-principal investigators on this project are Cody Friesen, School for Engineering of Matter, Transport & Energy one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schhols of Engineering; Vladimiro Mujica, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry; and Ellen Stechel, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and also deputy director of LightWorks. Buttry and Friesen previously worked on an ARPA-E project developing a radical new design for automotive batteries.

Mujica will use quantum chemical calculations to help understand the binding of carbon dioxide to the carrier compounds. Stechel is simulating the cell behavior, Friesen’s group is working on cell design, and Buttry’s on the chemistry and electrochemistry of the binding process.

Also collaborating on this grant are two researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder; Doug Gin, in chemistry, and Rich Noble, in chemical engineering, who are helping to make very thin membranes for the separation process. Katherine Ayers of Proton OnSite, CT, will be involved with cell design and engineering.

The only proven commercially viable technology for flue gas capture uses compounds called amines in the so-called monoethanolamine (MEA) process. Several plant scale demonstrations use this old technology, first patented in 1930. The MEA process has several drawbacks, particularly the energy required for thermal regeneration of the amine capture agent. As discussed in a recent Department of Energy report (DOE/NETL-2009/1366), for typical conditions, the energy required for this process consumes roughly 40 percent of total plant output, and increases the cost of electricity by 85 percent.

Buttry predicts their innovative approach as having an overall efficiency far better than existing efforts.

ASU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry ranks 6th worldwide for research impact (gauged by the average cites per paper across the department for the decade ending in the 2011 International Year of Chemistry), and in the top eight nationally for research publications in the journals Science and Nature. The department’s strong record in interdisciplinary research is also evidenced by its 31st national ranking by the National Science Foundation in total and federally financed higher education research and development expenditures in chemistry.

Ariel Anbar and ASU graduate student Yun Duan inspect a sample of 2.5 billion-year-old seafloor.

ASU biogeochemist among 15 top scientist-educators

Biogeochemist Ariel Anbar has been selected as Arizona State University’s first Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Professor. This distinguished honor recognizes Anbar’s pioneering research and teaching.

He is one of 15 professors from 13 universities whose appointments were announced by the Maryland-based biomedical research institute on June 30. The appointment includes a five-year $1 million grant to support Anbar’s research and educational activities.

Since the inception of the HHMI Professor program in 2002, and including the new group of 2014 professors, only 55 scientists have been appointed HHMI professors. These professors are accomplished research scientists who are working to change undergraduate science education in the United States.

“Exceptional teachers have a lasting impact on students,” said HHMI President Robert Tjian. “These scientists are at the top of their respective fields and they bring the same creativity and rigor to science education that they bring to their research.”

Anbar, a professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Liberal Art and Sciences, as well as a Distinguished Sustainability Scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability, was named an ASU President’s Professor in 2013 in recognition of his pioneering online education efforts. He is deeply involved in using the medium to its fullest to help educate and encourage a generation that has grown up with the Internet.

A leading geoscientist with more than 100 peer-reviewed papers to his name, Anbar’s research focuses on Earth’s past and future as a habitable planet. This expertise feeds directly into his teaching in the highly successful class Habitable Worlds, developed through ASU Online. In Habitable Worlds, Anbar and course designer Lev Horodyskyj combine the power of the Internet, game-inspired elements, and the sensibilities of a tech savvy generation to teach what makes planets habitable and engage students in a simulated hunt for other habitable worlds in the cosmos. This innovative online course kindles student interest and learning. Beginning in fall 2014, it will be available outside of ASU as HabWorlds Beyond (www.habworlds.org), via a partnership with education technology company Smart Sparrow. Habitable Worlds has been taken by more than 1,500 ASU students and consistently receives outstanding student reviews.

The HHMI grant will enable Anbar to develop a suite of online virtual field trips (VFTs) that teach the story of Earth’s evolution as an inhabited world. The virtual field trips will be based on nearly 4 billion years of Earth’s geological record. These immersive, interactive VFTs will take students to locations that teach key insights into Earth’s evolution, fundamental principles of geology, and practices of scientific inquiry.

Anbar helped lead a multi-institutional team that developed a number of such VFTs for use in Habitable Worlds and elsewhere (vft.asu.edu), supported by the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the National Science Foundation. Now, working with ASU education technologist and doctoral student Geoffrey Bruce, ASU professor and geoscience education specialist Steven Semken, and partners at other institutions, Anbar will build virtual field trips covering the sweep of Earth history. He and his team will take students to some of the most important places on Earth to explore how the planet came to be what it is today.

“The goal is to develop powerful and engaging new tools to teach about Earth’s evolution,” explains Anbar. “In the near term, we will create VFT-based lessons that can be incorporated into existing introductory geoscience courses. Right away, that can impact the roughly 2,000 majors and non-majors who take such courses each year at ASU, as well as thousands of students elsewhere. In the long run we aim to create a fully online course like Habitable Worlds – I’m calling it Evolving World for now – that covers the content of one of the most important introductory geoscience courses, historical geology.”

Anbar’s plan could re-invigorate instruction in historical geology, which is taught in nearly every geoscience program. In addition to being fundamental to the field of geology, it provides vital context for the search for life beyond Earth, and for the changes that humans are causing to the planet. However, historical geology is best taught through field experiences, which are logistically challenging at large universities. Even when they are possible, it is impossible to expose students to all the most scientifically important sites because they are scattered around the globe. While VFTs cannot rival physical field trips, they are a big advance over teaching this material only through lectures.

“Most science classes teach science as facts and answers,” says Anbar. “With VFTs, as with Habitable Worlds, we are trying to teach that science is really a process – a process of exploration that helps us first organize our ignorance about questions to which we don’t have answers, and then helps us narrow the uncertainties so that we can replace ignorance with understanding.”