This electrolyzer design permits continuous propane production, sidestepping the pitfalls of the more conventional batch processing methods. (Image: Illinois Tech)

The electric power sector accounts for about 30 percent of U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide.

As the U.S. races toward its target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, innovative methods to reduce the significant CO2 emissions from electric power and industrial sectors are critical. A promising technology in green energy is being developed by Mohammad Asadi, Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at Illinois Institute of Technology.

Professor Asadi’s work involves converting CO2 into propane using a novel electrolyzer in a manner that is both scalable and economically viable. What sets Asadi’s electrolyzer apart is its unique catalytic system. “The electrolyzer’s catalytic system uses inexpensive, readily available materials to produce tri-carbon molecules — fundamental building blocks for fuels like propane — in an efficient and economically feasible fashion,” said Asadi.

To ensure a deep understanding of the catalyst’s operations, the team employed a combination of experimental and computational methods. This rigorous approach illuminated the crucial elements influencing the catalyst’s reaction activity, selectivity, and stability.

A distinctive feature of this technology, lending to its commercial viability, is the implementation of a flow electrolyzer. This design permits continuous propane production, sidestepping the pitfalls of the more conventional batch processing methods.

According to Asadi, they faced many technical and scientific challenges developing this green propane technology. One of the important ones, he said, was how to move from single carbon molecules to multi-carbon chemicals. “We discovered an innovative catalytic system composed of multiple components that work together in synergy to go all the way from single carbon (C1) to tri-carbon molecules (C3+) products.”

The next challenge is to scale it up. “Continuous innovation and iteration are key to enhancing the scalability and effectiveness of low-cost technology solutions. By incorporating feedback from end-users, monitoring performance metrics, and adapting designs based on real-world conditions, we can refine our solutions to better meet the evolving needs of target communities,” he said.

The team has an ongoing project with the DOE that helps them identify major challenges and resolve them. “We are at the 100 W elecyrolyzer level and trying to move toward a multi-stack kW scale process to advance sustainable chemical manufacturing. That will need significant fund raising and industrial partners to help us on this journey and we are hopeful to advance this technology and contribute in the recent move toward decarbonizing economy and the U.S. energy independence and security,” added Asadi.

This innovation is not Asadi’s first venture into sustainable energy. He previously adapted a version of this catalyst to produce ethanol by harnessing carbon dioxide from industrial waste gas. Recognizing the potential of the green propane technology, Asadi has collaborated with global propane distributor SHV Energy to further scale and disseminate the system.

Working on technologies designed to bridge academic research with practical societal applications is not an easy undertaking. Asadi’s advice for engineers is: “Establish clear metrics and benchmarks to assess the impact of your engineering solutions on society. Collect data before, during, and after implementation to evaluate effectiveness, identify areas for improvement, and demonstrate actual outcomes.”

Illinois Tech recently received a landmark investment of $6 million from the U.S. National Science Foundation under its Accelerating Research Translation (ART) initiative that will support Asadi’s team in bringing this technology closer to real-world application, which is a substantial step toward achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

This article was written by Chitra Sethi, Editorial Director at SAE Media Group. For more information, visit here .