Developers of a “HI-Light” chemical reactor were awarded top honors in this year’s "Create the Future" Design Contest. The grand-prize-winning solar thermal device mimics plant photosynthesis and converts carbon dioxide emissions into a clean energy resource.

The annual “Create the Future ” competition, launched in 2002 by Tech Briefs magazine, aims to encourage and reward engineering innovation. The solar converter, made at Cornell University, was presented first place by senior editors at Tech Briefs Media Group and over 75 design engineers from a range of industries.

Using nanotechnology, the HI-Light system transforms CO2 and water into methanol and other high-value hydrocarbons. The reactor’s inventors hope that their technology will reduce carbon emissions and make carbon dioxide capture and conversion more economical.

Caption: A diagram of the HI-Light technology

The Cornell University inventors included Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao; Jessica Akemi Cimada da Silva; David Erickson; Tobias Hanrath; Jason Salfi; and Clayton Poppe.

The Highlights of HI-Light

The HI-Light reactor, a solar-thermocatalytic “reverse combustion” system, incorporates wave-guides, which act as transmission lines. The internal light-steering rods feature scattering surfaces that enable deep penetration of the solar radiation into the reactor.

The optical energy, focused into the reactor, interacts with the catalyst to convert incoming sequestered carbon dioxide.

“Similar to fiber optics in telecommunications, our patented wave-guide technology will enable the light to be distributed evenly within our reactor, so as to increase reaction rate, decrease capital cost, and increase operation outcomes,” said Cao, who spoke with Tech Briefs. (See the full details and contest entry at the official Create the Future  site.)

The Cornell team has been in talks with the oil and gas company Shell to develop a reactor that will create syngas, a fuel gas mixture consisting primarily of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide.

Cao envisions the up-scaled reactor alongside power plants, converting a facility’s wasted CO2-rich flue gas. The carbon transformation, he said, could be driven by solar radiation, captured from a parabolic light concentrator.

As engineers at Cornell, our team members aim to reduce energy-related emissions and create high-value products from CO2 emissions that drive the climate change,” said Cao. “We can not only help the power plants reduce their CO2 emissions, but also help them to convert the waste flue gas into useful product.”

In addition to the grand prize of $20,000, first-place “Create the Future” winners were named in seven categories:

Aerospace & Defense: Airfoil Performance Monitor (APM) 

Patented technology provides real-time information to pilots regarding the state of the airflow over the aircraft’s wings and tail. This information is critical for the prevention of stalls and loss of control, especially during icing conditions.

Automotive/Transportation: Heavy Duty Aftermarket Super Truck 

An Advanced Under Hood Air System delivers a 10% fuel savings, while reducing heat and fan noise by 50%.

Consumer Products: Conformal Battery 

A novel battery integrates into the product structure, reducing weight while improving performance. Designs are based on end use and function – not battery shape.

Electronics/Sensors/IoT: Integrated Multi-Color Light Emitting Device Made with Hybrid Crystal Structure 

An integrated hybrid crystal LED display device – for the first time – emits red, green, and blue colors on one single wafer, offering applications to the next generation of LED displays and televisions.

Machinery/Automation/Robotics: EJBot: Versatile Climbing Robot for Industrial Vessel Inspection 

A new propeller-type robot climbs various types of structures and obstacles, reducing the cost of industrial vessel inspection.

Medical: Arterial Everter 

A novel tool replaces traditional suturing and enables rapid anastomosis of arteries, dramatically reducing operating time.

Sustainable Technologies: Energy Saving Filter for Removal of Heavy Metals from Water 

Innovative water filtering technology uses a nanomaterial to attract heavy metal ions.

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