NYU spearheads project to help chemical industry go green

Researchers at NYU are leading a multi-year project to reduce carbon emissions in chemical manufacturing.

An electrical tower with wires being powered by wind turbines and solar panels.

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum.

A team at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering  is playing a key role in forging a collaboration involving over a dozen US universities and national laboratories aimed at sparking — literally — a fundamental change in how the US chemical industry operates.

The goal is to address the most daunting task looming over the industry: how to make industrial chemistry — especially petrochemistry — greener and more sustainable, partly to meet the escalating demands of greenhouse emission regulations. The nascent, multi-institutional effort will be called “Decarbonizing Chemical Manufacturing Using Sustainable Electrification,” or DC-MUSE.

DC-MUSE was conceived this summer in a workshop attended by over 40 companies and institutions, and organized by a planning grant from the National Science Foundation to build capacity in convergent research. Its aim is to develop technologies and strategies to help the US chemical industry migrate from thermal-based manufacturing processes to electricity-based ones.

A range of government regulations aimed at achieving zero-carbon emissions are driving this migration. These greenhouse emissions regulations will progressively come into effect in the coming decades, culminating, for example, in the European Union’s aim to reduce 95 percent of 1990 level greenhouse emissions by 2050. These and other international regulations on greenhouse emissions could threaten up to 12 percent of all US exports ($220 billion),  if the US chemical industry is not able to decarbonize its processes. The task is clearly enormous, not just for the industry itself but for the larger economy.

“Thirty percent of US industrial CO2 emissions comes from the chemical industry, and 93% of the chemical processes use fossil fuel heat,” noted Andre Taylor,  associate professor at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering. “We're talking about changing a whole industry that also involves a huge societal impact, encompassing 70,000 products, and 25% of the US gross domestic product.”

Many experts believe that the first step in overhauling the chemical industry will involve moving away from thermally-driven chemical reactions and separation processes that require heat from fossil fuels and moving towards reactions that use electricity generated by renewable resources, like wind and solar.

While this migration has already started to occur, with penetration of renewable sources into the US electrical grid doubling in the past decade, the technologies for integrating these sources into cost-effective electrified chemical processes has remained practically non-existent.

“After meeting with many chemical industry representatives, we learned that technologies that would enable electrification on the industrial scale don’t exist at this time,” said Yury Dvorkin, assistant professor at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. “The industry needs support to develop these technologies so they can be adopted in a way that’s economically feasible.”

One of the areas that Dvorkin and his colleagues believed they needed to focus on was overcoming emerging reliability issues that inhibit and increase the cost of using renewable energy in the electrical grid. In other words, how do you ensure that there are no supply interruptions to the delivery of electricity when energy from the sun and wind can be intermittent?

At the moment, energy storage technologies are not entirely up to the task of balancing out the intermittency of renewable electricity. As a result, NYU Tandon researchers have been looking at storing energy in the form of chemical bonds, as opposed to electrons, as a possible solution.

In energy storage approaches like this, energy is stored chemically in the form of hydrogen, and that hydrogen is reused later in a fuel cell. The fuel cells used to capture the energy are referred to as redox-flow batteries (RFBs). RFBs consist of a positive and negative electrolyte stored in two separate tanks. When the liquids are pumped into the battery cell stack situated between the tanks, a redox reaction occurs and generates electricity at the battery’s electrodes.

Several NYU researchers recently published a paper in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science that looks at improving the energy storage capabilities and economics of these RFBs.

The NYU researchers didn’t simply tweak RFB technology to improve its energy density or reduce their costs. Instead of just plugging RFBs into renewable energy sources to store their intermittent energy production, the NYU researchers demonstrated how you could use RFB concepts to completely integrate chemical manufacturing into the whole energy storage process.

“In principle, you can imagine chemical plants acting as energy storage reservoirs, but at the same time producing chemical products,” explained Miguel Modestino,  an assistant professor at NYU, and one of the co-authors of the Cell Reports paper. “The storage value it provides lowers the cost for the production of the chemical that you want to make at the end of the day.”

Modestino added that this approach also allows the chemical companies to integrate fluctuating sources of electricity, like renewables. You can thus decarbonize the industry in a way that is both economic and functions well with the dynamics of a renewable-driven grid.

The DC-MUSE project has expanded dramatically since its ideas first took root a few months ago. The project has already put together a group of 30 investigators from 11 universities and 3 National Laboratories that cover a wide spectrum of research areas.

At NYU Tandon, Ryan Hartman, associate professor, is leading a group to develop plasma catalysis technology for these types of chemical reactions. Taylor’s and Modestino’s groups are working on electrochemical reactors for chemical manufacturing. And Dvorkin has been working on integrating these plants within the grid. Other groups outside of NYU are investigating using membranes for separations and system integration.

In addition, the NYU team has been consulting with faculty at the law school and the business school on how to design policies that can enable the economic transition towards renewable energy-driven chemical manufacturing.

The researchers are also reaching out to industry to get early involvement. In fact, the genesis of the DC-MUSE project was a workshop in which NYU invited 50 industry experts and people from academia to come together to talk about the challenges in the chemical industry, such as process intensification.

“We have been talking with people in the big chemical manufacturing companies, who have started to develop pilots for electrified chemical production,” said Elizabeth Biddinger, City College of New York. Biddinger and Modestino recently published an article in ECS Interfaces describing how environmental advantages of electro-organic syntheses such as minimizing waste generation, utilizing non-fossil feedstocks, and on-demand chemical manufacturing are also large drivers for sustainability in chemical processes across multiple sectors.

The involvement of petrochemical companies is not by accident.  Petrochemical processes—and actually a very small subset of petrochemical processes—account for more than 80 percent of the energy and CO2 emissions from chemical processes, according to Modestino.

As the DC-MUSE picks up momentum, its architects at NYU envision the project as a go-to Center for the fundamental engineering research that is needed to enable these technologies. Said Modestino, “The way that we see it is that you do the research in the lab, you develop with lab-scale demonstrations, but then through partnerships with the companies you'll develop them into processes.”

While the DC-MUSE project awaits its expanded aim though increased funding, it is already having an impact on the pedagogical approach of the NYU professors.

 “We already have had discussions about joint Ph.D. positions so that a student can have multiple advisors,” said Dvorkin. “In this way, we can really work together on these problems and provide students with a multidisciplinary perspective, because without this sort of collaboration, without this input delivered to the students, there is no way to solve societal problems.”

Taylor added: “From the applications we’ve seen into our program, we know that people want to pursue things that actually have an impact on changing society and improving the world. People want to discover something fundamental, but if it has a broader societal impact, people can see its importance. This is why I do research in this area.”