Researchers secure $3M to develop tech to reduce energy consumption

Researchers at West Virginia University (WVU) have secured $3 million from the US Department of Energy to pioneer a new chemical reactor system that could transform industrial manufacturing processes. 

Led by Professor John Hu, the WVU team intends to investigate ways to significantly reduce industrial processes' energy and greenhouse gas requirements by harnessing microwaves for the concurrent production of ethylene and ammonia.

Producing cleaner chemicals

Conventional methods of producing ethylene and ammonia release large volumes of greenhouse gases, a pressing environmental concern given the urgent need to combat climate change.

The team's novel reactor system offers a more sustainable and efficient alternative using microwave electromagnetic radiation. This approach could allow for a departure from traditional methods, which often rely on fossil fuels and can be energy-intensive and environmentally detrimental.

Microwave technology enables precise control over the reaction conditions, leading to higher yields, reduced energy consumption, and, importantly, a decrease in the emission of greenhouse gases.

A key aspect of WVU's research is the carbon-negative process of the reactor, which can reduce energy consumption by up to 85%. This has the potential to offer significant benefits to a variety of major energy-consuming industries and could be adapted for simpler operations such as air separation. 

“Using microwaves allows us to control the heat delivery very precisely, so that we can quickly switch between heating the reactor to produce methane and cooling it to synthesize ammonia. By using the hydrogen from methane coupling, we remove the need for a hydrogen production step in ammonia synthesis and make the process much more friendly to the environment,” Hu explained, in a statement.

Since industrial heat accounts for about 9% of US emissions, adopting the technology could profoundly impact emission-reduction efforts.

Yuxin Wang and Yuhe Tian, assistant professors at WVU, and Srinivas Palanki, professor and chair of the Statler College Department and Biomedical Engineering, further contributed to the research, building on existing WVU patents and research demonstrating microwave reactors operating at lower temperatures. This approach produces fewer unwanted byproducts and improves product yield while operating in a "non-equilibrium mode."

Additionally, the research team is leveraging machine learning to optimize operations by processing real-time data measured by tools within the reactor.

Towards commercialization

As the project approaches commercial viability, it promises environmental and economic benefits, particularly for resource-rich states like West Virginia.

This technology is expected to stimulate local economies and create job opportunities, especially in regions affected by declining traditional industries such as coal mining.

Hu said, "Our research is part of a larger industrial transformation. By next year, the US will have 3.5 million jobs to fill in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields."

WVU engineers are making significant strides in sustainable industrial manufacturing with the development of microwave reactor technology.

By reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, leveraging renewable energy sources, and enhancing efficiency through technological advancements, this project aligns with global initiatives to combat climate change.

As it moves closer to commercial reality, the focus on environmental, economic, and societal benefits underscores a commitment to community engagement and education, fostering a sustainable future.

Originally published on Interesting Engineering : Original article

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