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University of Oklahoma, Iowa State Receive $4 Million Federal Grant for Clean Hydrogen Research

September 14, 2022

University of Oklahoma, Iowa State Receive $4 Million Federal Grant for Clean Hydrogen Research

Daniel Resasco, Steven Crossley, Bin Wang, and Ngoc Bui
Left to right: Daniel Resasco, Steven Crossley, Bin Wang, and Ngoc Bui

What if we could bring together Oklahoma’s abundant natural resources, like methane, with Iowa’s renewable biomass to create a better way to produce hydrogen energy?

That question is the subject of a new study being explored by researchers at the University of Oklahoma and Iowa State University. The four-year project will also investigate the potential byproducts and related applications of solid carbon that might result from effectively generating carbon neutral or carbon negative hydrogen energy. The research is funded by an expected $4 million from the National Science Foundation and is led by Steven P. Crossley, the Sam A. Wilson Professor in the School of Chemical, Biological and Materials Engineering, Gallogly College of Engineering, and an energy research fellow at the OU Institute for Resilient Environmental and Energy Systems.

“There's a strong drive to create energy without creating the side effect of global warming, but we still have a need for cost-effective energy for our society,” Crossley said. “One of the really promising avenues is to convert the carbon that is in these forms of diverse natural resources into solid carbon and extract the hydrogen as our energy source.”

Creating a New Energy Economy

There has been a great deal of excitement in the climate science world around hydrogen-based energy as an alternative to directly combusting fossil fuel-based sources for energy. The goal of hydrogen energy research is to produce it cheaply, without greenhouse gas emissions and at scale from either water or hydrogen-rich organic compounds. However, there are several methods by which this conversion can take place which all come with their own benefits and costs.

Hydrogen production by pyrolysis – breaking apart natural gas into hydrogen and solid carbon – is a particularly enticing science and engineering goal, as this method produces H2 with a low carbon emission intensity footprint and has an additional benefit of creating solid carbon byproducts with potentially high market value of their own.

Graduate students Caleb Bavlnka and Alejandra Gomez discuss sample of carbon nanotubes.
Graduate students Caleb Bavlnka and Alejandra Gomez discuss sample of carbon nanotubes.

“If you were to meet a significant fraction of our energy needs by producing H2 and solid carbon, that would create a huge quantity of excess solid carbon.,” Crossley said. “What do we do with all this carbon? How do we gain value from it? How do we benefit society? In lieu of creating new mountains and islands of solid carbon, what can we actually do?”

Currently, performance carbon materials, such as carbon fibers and nanotubes, are expensive to produce and so have been relegated to high-end or niche applications like making lighter cars, drones or advanced composite materials.

“Now we're talking about creating a byproduct from the energy that changes everything,” Crossley said. “That means that we need to find all ways that we can use carbons and tweak them such that they benefit society in a variety of ways and we’re not wasting the valuable resources that we put into the process.”

The researchers are studying many different applications, like soil amendments to sequester long-lived carbon in the environment and help crops grow, evaluating their use as water filtration systems to help clean water.

“We are investigating ways to make advanced pavements and asphalts, materials for batteries and fuel cells, and other next-generation technologies that possibly wouldn't have made sense unless this was a byproduct from the energy industry,” he added.

“Crossley and team epitomize the many fundamental and innovation approaches that OU researchers are taking to explore low-carbon intensity energy research,” said Tim Filley, executive director of IREES. “This approach also represents an important research foundation of OU's developing regional leadership in efforts like the HALO Hydrogen Hub tristate partnership.”

In 2021, Crossley was part of a team that was awarded funding through OU’s “Big Idea Challenge” initiative, organized by its Office of the Vice President for Research and Partnerships, as one of five transdisciplinary research teams developing innovative, convergent research projects to address significant global challenges.

OU Vice President for Research and Partnerships Tomás Díaz de la Rubia said, “this work is an exciting outgrowth of our Big Idea Challenge investment into the Carbon-free H2 Energy Production and Storage (CHEPS) project. It represents exactly the kind of return on university investment the BIC and all our seed funding programs are meant to catalyze.”  

Where the South Meets the Midwest

Part of what makes their project interesting, Crossley says, is the pairing of the natural resources native to each region.

“We believe blending the oxygen and water-rich plant biomass with natural gas in the pyrolysis process will create a new set of valuable properties of the carbons that we can make,” Crossley said. “This project is really interesting because we're combining two different regions with wildly different natural resources and we’re creating new solutions that we believe will be synergistic.”

The research team, which includes expertise in modeling to determine cost-effectiveness of these processes, is investigating how they can use portions of biomass waste or energy crops that grow quickly in areas typically inhospitable to farming or that can grow with little water to create hydrogen energy and carbon materials.

Graduate students Nilson F. L. de Paula and Ethan Zhang discuss operation of fluidized bed reactor.
Graduate students Nilson F. L. de Paula and Ethan Zhang discuss operation of fluidized bed reactor.
Graduate student Ana Carolina Jerdy holding beaker of catalyst solution.
Graduate student Ana Carolina Jerdy holding beaker of catalyst solution.

It Takes Energy to Make Energy

Pyrolysis, the approach to hydrogen production the team is exploring, involves breaking apart methane into its component atoms; each methane molecule contains one carbon and four hydrogen atoms. A key drawback of pyrolysis, however, is the large amount of energy that is needed to break up the molecules in the absence of any catalyst, but this is one way the biomass could help.  

“It takes a lot of energy to rip the molecules apart with heat energy alone, but if we carefully design catalysts that lower the energy inputs needed, we produce value-added materials, like nanotubes and nanofibers, that lower that energy requirement,” Crossley said. “In addition to improving upon these catalysts to make them more efficient for large-scale production of these carbons, incorporating some of the less valuable fractions of biomass can extend the life of catalysts to make them last longer and perform better, and modifying the carbons we produce by treating them with specific biomass-derived streams will broaden the range of applications that they can be used for. Both of those are potentially very synergistic and they all rely on combining the natural gas we have in Oklahoma with the biomass fractions that we have in Iowa.”

Crossley said their work is in an emerging technology, but he hopes the findings of their research will allow them to optimize the resources of both regions.

The project, “RII Track-2 FEC:Cost-effective Conversion of Natural Gas and Biomass to Hydrogen and Performance Carbons,” is funded by the National Science Foundation Office of Integrative Activities, Award no. 2218070. The project began on Aug. 1, 2022, and is expected to be complete by July 31, 2026. At the University of Oklahoma, the team includes Crossley and coinvestigators Bin Wang, Daniel Resasco, and Ngoc Bui. Collaborators at Iowa State University include Jean-Philippe Tessonnier, Mark Wright, and Eric Cochran.