Funding powers clean energy research By Michael Brown
Edmonton--The solid oxide fuel cell, with its promise of low emissions and increased fuel possibilities, is within grasp, and the federal government has its money on the University of Alberta.
In particular, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) homed in on the team led by Jingli Luo, whose work—often in collaboration with her Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering colleagues—has pushed the energy world to the brink of finding the holy grail of combustible engines.
Luo’s latest discovery grant, $300,000 paid out over five years, will build on the work of previous grants that have helped her look at ways to turn conventional fuel cells into chemical reactors.
In one instance, Luo says, she was able to use her NSERC grant to support a PhD student who developed a selective catalyst that aids the conversion of ethane to ethylene—a usable, low-emission fuel—right in the fuel cell.
“Normally, it takes an expensive separation process to purify the product, but this process has excellent selectivity, and it doesn’t produce CO2, which is a big advantage these days,” said Luo, who this week was named the Canadian Academy of Engineering’s newest fellow.
The discovery of this novel hydrogen-selective catalyst led to the invention of a high-temperature fuel cell that is able to burn carbon dioxide, oxygen and methane—the main component of natural gas—to create electricity, some water and carbon monoxide, which is a value-added feedstock for both food and petrochemical production, as well as the creation of, among others, medical applications.
“Every time we generate one megawatt-hour of energy we can consume one tonne of CO2.”
So promising is this research that the project—which is co-led by Tom Etsell, a professor in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering who also received an NSERC Discovery Grant—is among 24 entries chosen from 344 submissions still in the running to receive one of five $3-million first prizes in the $35-million Grand Challenge: Innovative Carbon Uses competition held by the Alberta-based Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation.
“This is what can you do when you have great support from the department, the faculty and my colleagues, and great funding support,” said Luo.
Etsell says the NSERC funding is playing a vital role in keeping the research team together.
Research projects require equipment and well-educated staff, and in this case, the NSERC funding is allowing the fuel cell program to carry on.
“It allows us to keep things going . . . to keep the people who know what they are doing,” said Etsel. “It is a fantastic bridge between the fuel cell grants.”
The grants were announced earlier this week—with 58 of them going to engineering researchers and graduate students. All told, 139 U of A research projects received more than $23.1 million in NSERC Discovery Grants; six U of A researchers received NSERC’s Discovery Accelerator Supplements, each worth $120,000 over three years; and 81 U of A graduate students received $3.6 million in scholarships and fellowships.