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Engineering faculty member receives $1 million in grants to remediate carbon dioxide and ethane

Pete Shooner and Colleen Carow | Jan 22, 2019

Engineering faculty member receives $1 million in grants to remediate carbon dioxide and ethane

Pete Shooner and Colleen Carow | Jan 22, 2019

An Ohio University engineering faculty member has received $1 million to develop a novel laboratory-scale process to simultaneously convert two of the energy industry’s most problematic substances to manage – carbon dioxide and ethane -- into valuable products.

With the support of $800,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and $200,000 from OHIO, Professor of Mechanical Engineering Jason Trembly aims to transform ethane, which is found in wet shale gas, into liquid chemicals/fuels via first converting them into ethylene, and carbon dioxide found in industrial emissions into carbon monoxide. The result? High-value products for the chemical and energy sectors.

The OHIO funds will support graduate students working on the project. The three-year cooperative agreement received from the DOE, Trembly said, was among a field of highly competitive proposals from well-established research universities and companies.

“Being awarded this grant establishes Ohio University within a very competitive and innovative area of chemical process intensification,” said Trembly, who is also the director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy and the Environment within the Russ College of Engineering and Technology.

In process intensification, chemical engineering principles are used to develop a substantially smaller, cleaner, safer and more energy efficient technology. Currently, ethane and other substances contained in natural gas must first be separated before the primary natural gas component – methane – may be sold. This separation process requires a great deal of energy and represents a significant portion of ethane product costs, according to Trembly.

What’s more, with so much ethane being produced as a by-product of shale gas extraction, the industry is experiencing a glut. Conversion facilities like ethane cracking plants, which are also energy intensive, are not available in ethane-rich regions – costing these areas tremendous economic development opportunities. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, is readily available from industrial flue gas emissions.

Trembly’s project addresses the challenges faced by two major energy sectors with a modular electrochemical process based on a solid oxide electrolytic cell (SOEC) design. In the SOEC process, carbon dioxide is reduced via electrolysis into carbon monoxide, and the resulting oxygen ions are transported across a membrane where they selectively oxidize ethane into ethylene. Developing electrocatalytic materials that are both energy efficient and selective are a key focus of the project.

At full scale, the system’s equipment would be about the size of a semi-trailer, allowing distributed, modular units to meet the demands of individual wells on-site, based on production levels. These smaller units would also represent a much lower initial investment as compared to large processing facilities, such as mid-stream separation and cracker plants.

Not only does the process save energy for both industry and the environment, but it also keeps the ethane conversion process in Appalachia instead of the Gulf of Mexico, where cracker plants are more prevalent.

“If successful, we’ll reduce the energy intensity associated with natural gas separations,” Trembly explained. “This will also enable the region to recover supply chain value that is currently being lost.”