Conn Center Professor and Chemistry Professor Team Win DOE Grant

September 24, 2020

For the third time this year, Dr. Joshua Spurgeon, Theme Leader for Solar Fuels at the Conn Center for Renewable Energy at Speed School of Engineering, has been awarded a sizable competitive grant from a federal agency for his research. The current grant, funded by the Department of Energy (DOE) is $1 million, in addition to a $250,000 cost share award. Dr. Craig Grapperhaus, Professor and Chair of the University of Louisville Chemistry Department, has also been named as a co-collaborator on the grant.

The project, entitled, “Electrochemical Reduction of Flue Gas CO2 to Commercially Viable C2 – C4 Products,” is working towards converting waste CO2 stream into C2-C4 chemicals through an electrochemical reduction route.

Spurgeon said, “The goal of the project is to take carbon dioxide (CO2), which is essentially waste emission gas contributing to harmful greenhouse gases and climate change, and use an electrochemical process to break it down and try to make new products out of it,” he said. “We are trying to create chemicals that are valuable and you can sell on the market.”

Spurgeon said the grant monies will allow the two researchers to expand their CO2 reduction research, pick up an additional graduate student and two post-docs and solidify their collaboration.

“We can now take something we were doing on our own as a low level collaboration and really ramp it up to a serious group effort,” said Spurgeon. “We have a chance to make a much bigger dent in the field now,” he said.

Grapperhaus said he and Spurgeon began to collaborate on research more than two years ago, and published papers together previously. “Our (chemistry) group started getting into ‘catalyst for carbon dioxide reduction’ research, and given Josh’s expertise in this area, we started to collaborate in earnest at that point,” he said.

Spurgeon believes recent success in grant funding is due to numerous factors. “Interest in CO2 reduction funding has increased dramatically in the last five to six years,” he said. “In addition, we’ve matured a bit and gotten some more results, and we’ve done better at refining the way we write to different granting agencies, which has helped a lot,” he said. “Last but not least, bringing in the right kind of team was key for this grant, with Craig and me together bringing different strengths to the table,” he said.

The project has also gotten support from a former Speed School student. One of Spurgeon’s previous undergrad researchers, Nolan Theaker, is now a PhD student at University of North Dakota. Theaker, who is a research engineer with the Institute for Energy Studies there in ND, sought out his former professor for collaboration.

Spurgeon said the University of North Dakota has significant expertise working in fossil fuel utilities, including partnerships with coal-fired power plants. “For our project, the goal is to try to take CO2 emissions from a fossil fuel power plant and turn that into something valuable, to create economic value for what is otherwise a problem,” said Spurgeon. “Having that partnership with North Dakota, who has access to actual flue gas from a utility, and their own experience in analyzing that kind of thing; that gave us another major strength for this proposal,” said Spurgeon. “Ultimately, we are taking what is a problematic pollutant, and making it a feed stock for a valuable chemical synthesis,” he said.

In the highly competitive field of renewable energy, Grapperhaus said that in trying to design their catalyst system they wanted to make something practical that can be done on a large scale.  “If you hit that mark, you’re really transforming the field,” he said. “But even the steps along the way – what we learned about the process and about how to design the catalyst – it can all then be applied within the field in other systems,” he said.

A key, said Grapperhaus, is understanding that the idea of capturing carbon, sequestering and burying it, is not really a solution. “It’s just sweeping the problem under the rug,” he said. “But if you can use that to make products that feed back in to the stream, then you’re completing a cycle.” Spurgeon added,” This work is giving an economic driver to get industries to adopt these kinds of things.”

Andrew Marsh, Assistant Director at Conn Center, said that the pair’s novel way of treating flue gas and trying to create products from it fits within a larger realm of CO2 capture research that is trying to translate a harmful substance into something that could be helpful.  “All this research helps to establish the understanding that at the Conn Center, what we do in the lab is not just novel chemistry and interesting chemical engineering. While it certainly is that, there is also a definite impact all these things are designed to address that fits into the very fabric of our lives.”