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ASU researchers aim to pull fuels out of thin air


July 21, 2016

Nonrenewable fossil fuels give liquid fuels a bad name.

But not all liquid fuels are fossil fuels, and fuels don’t have to be dirty. The Center for Negative Carbon Emissions’ novel air-capture technology features a plastic resin that captures carbon dioxide when dry, and releases it when moist. The process has promising new applications in creating carbon-neutral liquid fuels, a greene The Center for Negative Carbon Emissions’ novel air-capture technology features a plastic resin that captures carbon dioxide when dry, and releases it when moist. The process has promising new applications in creating carbon-neutral liquid fuels, a greener alternative to fossil fuels. Photo by: Jessica Hochreiter/ASU Download Full Image

Fuels are considered dirty when they put new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which causes pollution and the buildup of environmentally detrimental greenhouse gases. But what if rather than using fuels that add carbon dioxide, we could create fuels that recycle carbon dioxide from the atmosphere?

Researchers at Arizona State University are exploring the idea of creating fuels that do just that: carbon-neutral liquid fuels. Think of them as fuels created out of thin air.

The endeavor builds on the advances being made at ASU’s Center for Negative Carbon Emissions, which is developing a technology that collects carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using an air-capture technique that literally scrubs it from the air and then captures it so it can be reused at an affordable cost — a carbon dioxide recycling program.

This effort moves toward closing the carbon cycle, which means making sure no new carbon dioxide ends up in the atmosphere — essential for ensuring that concentrations don’t surpass unsafe limits for life on Earth.

In addition to the environmental benefits of removing carbon dioxide, excessive amounts of it can be turned into carbon-neutral liquid fuels, making it a renewable energy source.

“The answer to our search for a sustainable future is likely to involve a combination of technologies — and fuels from air will play an important role.”

— Arvind Ramachandran, ASU environmental engineering doctoral student

How exactly can fuel be pulled from thin air? Like any magic act, it is surprisingly simple.  

First, the center's researchers generate hydrogen by using a renewable, carbon-free electricity source (such as wind energy or solar power) to split water through a process called electrolysis.

Second, this gaseous hydrogen is combined with the carbon dioxide captured from air.

What does this mixture produce? Methanol, an alcohol fuel similar to ethanol. Voila! Fuel from air.

Like ethanol, methanol can be blended with gasoline or further processed into gasoline.

“When this methanol or synthetic gasoline is burned, it releases carbon dioxide and water back into the atmosphere where it can then be recaptured and reused to make more fuel,” said Steve Atkins, a Center for Negative Carbon Emissions senior engineer who specializes in this technology.

Methanol can also be converted into plastics that would be carbon negative, or into other fuels such as diesel and jet fuel.

“If we can make air-capture affordable then we have a carbon-neutral feedstock to make liquid fuels and take advantage of abundant renewable energy,” said Christophe Jospe, who was CNCE’s chief strategist from September 2014 until June of this year and is now founding The Carbon A List to highlight the most promising approaches to capturing and recycling carbon dioxide.

The big impacts of this technology are threefold.

First, it can help society to go carbon neutral. Unlike fossil fuels, carbon-neutral liquid fuels do not add greenhouse gases or generate a net carbon footprint. Limiting, and preferably reducing, our carbon footprint is essential for sustaining life.

Second, this technology is attractive because carbon-neutral liquid fuels can be used within our current industrial infrastructure.

“If we can’t use the internal combustion engines in our cars, then we have wasted assets,” Jospe said. This renewable alternative can work within society’s current infrastructure and energy system and be more sustainable.

Third, it addresses some of the limitations of other renewable energy methods. Solar and wind power experience intermittent drops in energy production. Much like traditional liquid fuels, carbon-neutral liquid fuels can be stored long-term and used in accordance with demand.

“During periods of intermittency in renewable energy, you could utilize liquid, carbon-neutral synthetic fuels to provide electrical power,” said Atkins — though he acknowledges the round-trip efficiency (electricity to fuels and back to electricity) would be low.

lab equipment

In this mobile methanol synthesis trailer senior engineer Steve Atkins produces hydrogen and mixes it with carbon dioxide, part of the process of creating a carbon-neutral liquid fuel. Photo courtesy of Steve Atkins

 

Related to our transportation fleet, Jospe said, “We don’t need to move toward a totally electrified transportation fleet. We can use fuels, but the fuels need to become carbon neutral.”

Flying an airplane with an electric battery may not be a realistic option due to the reality of energy density (how much energy is contained within a unit).

“Batteries can’t pack as much electrons into the same amount of space,” Jospe said.

That means options like jet fuel are beneficial because they are lighter weight, and can power travel across further distances. Maybe it’s easiest to say that they offer users more bang for their buck.

But nonrenewable fuels, like jet fuel, also come with nasty consequences for the environment.

Promisingly, the energy density of carbon-neutral liquid fuels can be more advantageous than current batteries. They are also better than fossil fuels because they avoid adding new carbon to the atmosphere.

Arvind Ramachandran, a first-year environmental engineering doctoral student, is advancing research in converting captured carbon dioxide into fuels and chemicals under the supervision of Klaus Lackner, the director of CNCE and a professor in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“I think it is very clear that we have to figure out a way to become carbon negative or at least carbon neutral,” said Ramachandran, who earned his master’s degree in chemical engineering from Columbia University.

“Making sure that our mobile sources of carbon dioxide emissions, such as cars and airplanes, are running on carbon-neutral fuels represents a powerful way of achieving carbon neutrality,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E REFUEL program (short for Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy’s Renewable Energy to Fuels through Utilization of Energy-dense Liquids) is currently offering funding opportunities to encourage innovations in liquid fuel technology that promise significant impacts.

Jospe thinks the air-capture technique fits the need by supporting the synthesis of fuels made from the air. CNCE is currently applying for ARPA-E funding to advance this effort.

Getting fuels from air is not the only option researchers at ASU are exploring. Others are advancing the production of biofuels from algae as part of a multi-university project supported by a recently awarded $2 million grant from the Bioenergy Technologies Office in the U.S. Department of Energy.

Additional niche applications of the air-capture technology would make it possible to use it to carbonate beverages, create high-value chemicals and sequester carbon in products such as graphene, plastics and carbon fiber.

These and many other products and systems require the use of carbon dioxide.

“Let’s get that carbon from air so we know it’s carbon neutral, rather than a source that doesn’t help us close the carbon cycle,” Jospe said.

CNCE researchers will promote and build on these ideas further when ASU hosts the Fuels From Air Conference on Sept. 28-30. The conference will bring researchers from around the world to discuss closing the carbon cycle, techniques in taking fuels from air and different ways to turn carbon dioxide into fuels.

Ramachandran, a budding specialist in this new and exciting field, said it best: “The answer to our search for a sustainable future is likely to involve a combination of technologies — and fuels from air will play an important role.”

Rose Gochnour Serago

Communications Program Coordinator, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

ASU Gammage BEYOND announces 2016-2017 season

Free post performance after-party with ticket purchase


July 21, 2016

ASU Gammage BEYOND has announced its 2016-2017 performance season, including five different performances with topics that cover PTSD, the environment and race in America, time passage, why we go to school and the power of love and loving.

The BEYOND performance series brings world-class artists into the community who immerse themselves by not only presenting evocative and compelling work, but also by connecting to local residents through engaging cultural participation programs.  A Contra Tiempo dancer ASU Gammage BEYOND has announced its 2016-2017 performance season. Download Full Image

For most shows, ticket holders will also be invited to a post-performance after-party with the artists.

“This special access to artists is something many patrons won’t experience anywhere else throughout an entire series,” said Michael Reed, ASU Gammage senior director of Programming and Organizational Initiatives. “Through BEYOND, our audiences have experienced hundreds of unique community and educational interactions as well as remarkable performances by some of the greatest dance, music and theater artists of our time.”

Tickets are on sale now, available at ticketmaster.com and asugammage.com

• General admission: $20

• ASU faculty and staff: $15

• Students and military: $10

 

ASU Gammage BEYOND 2016-2017 season:

"Speed Killed My Cousin" 
7 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 15, ASU Gammage

The Carpetbag Theatre brings us the acclaimed production of "Speed Killed My Cousin," a moving story of a young, African-American woman veteran of the Iraq War and her struggle with "Moral Injury," Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD) and Military Sexual Trauma (MST). A third generation soldier, the central character courts death by vehicular suicide. "Speed" explores multiple issues related to war, including the history and otherness of African Americans in the military and the experiences of women in combat. Memories and flashbacks unfold before her, and in her rear-view mirror, as she drives. Ultimately she must decide whether to let go of the wheel or to choose life.

The Carpetbag Theatre tells our human story with courage and unfailing integrity. Telling deeply moving stories of communities of color for over two decades has been the calling card of this award winning theater gem from Tennessee. We are very proud to host Carpetbag Theater for their Arizona debut and powerful depiction of issues faced by our deployed military personnel.

"Agua Furiosa / Contra Tiempo"
7 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 12, ASU Gammage

"Aqua Furiosa" Los Angeles-based "Contra Tiempo's" newest evening length dance/theater work, is a burst of energy, passion and physical expression that draws audiences in to confront realities of race in our country. Inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Oya, the Afro-Cuban deity of wind and storms, artistic director and choreographer Ana Maria Alvarez, harnesses her unique Urban-Latin movement approach to create a visually stunning and thought provoking evening of dance performance. "Aqua Furiosa" merges call and response, a live vocalist, water themes, fierce physicality and the performers’ own personal narratives. Audiences will walk away from "Aqua Furiosa" impacted, entertained and inspired to join the complex and transforming conversation of race in America.

Ana Maria Alverez and the artists of "Contra Tiemop" are a breath of fresh air on the international dance scene, integrating vibrant expression of Latina/o culture, the complexities of contemporary America and passionate, nuanced dance artistry in a signature language all their own.

"Aging Magician" / Rinde Rinde Eckert Paola Prestini
7 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017, ASU Galvin Playhouse

"Aging Magician" is a new music-theatre work, a composite of sonic and visual elements that paints an allegory on time, youth, and the peculiar magic of ordinary life, and, perhaps, the ordinary magic of a peculiar life. Accompanied by a string quartet and a choir of young people, "Aging Magician" moves us along with Harold, from the surgical repair of a timepiece to the magic show of time itself, lives and deaths, appearances and disappearances. The man’s vibrant last adventure is brought to life by a team of multidisciplinary artists who combine music, theatre, puppetry, instrument making and scenic design to create an enduring work for the stage. This work features vocalist Rinde Eckert, a musical set by Mark Stewart and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and string quartet.

Rarely do artists of Rinde Eckert, Paola Prestini and director Julian Crouch’s caliber and imaginations collaborate. The result in "Aging Magician" is a richly layered, surreal and transporting multi media musical meditation on life and the passing of time not to be missed.

"It's So Learning" / The Berseker Residents
7 p.m., Saturday, March 4, 2017, ASU Gammage

"It's So Learning" is the seventh show from the comedic trio, The Berserker Residents. The show will push and pull you down a crazy, twisting, hilarious and terrifying path of self-reflection that asks the question, “Why do we go to school?” In "It's So Learning," you’ll be handed a backpack full of the supplies you need to survive inside the classroom; you’ll be hauled through the quizzes, grades, bullies, praises, graded again and hopefully you’ll graduate. Don’t be tardy as a faculty of eccentrics is taking attendance. Prepare for anything in this interactive classroom experience.

If off the beaten path is where you like to go and ironic, brilliant and just plain wacky humor is your thing, The Berserker Residents are a can’t miss experience. "It's So Learning" will take you on a hilarious, awkward and insightful trip through the familiar absurdities called adolescence and public school.

"Dearest Home" / Kyle Abraham / Abraham.In.Motion
7 p.m., Saturday, April 1, 2017, ASU Gammage

MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship awardee, choreographer and dance artist Kyle Abraham comes to ASU Gammage for the first time with "Dearest Home" (working title), an interactive dance focused on Love and Loving.  Abraham’s beautiful, visceral, and unique signature choreography is alive and well in this moving and lush set of mostly solos and duets generated in conversation and collaboration with people of many ages and subcultures. "Dearest Home" interweaves movement, in its most vulnerable or intimate state with an interest in cross-cultural conversation and community action to create an open dialogue on how different demographics view and converse on topics rooted in love and the absence of love.

Kyle Abraham is simply one of the most compelling artists creating dance works today. His rare gift lies in the ability to be completely relevant, exciting and moving through the language of dance ... a movement poet, a visceral social commentator ... for any audience. He is changing the idea of what dance performance is and can be for people from all walks of life.

Public relations manager, ASU Gammage

480-965-1884