By Jayna Miller (CLAS Dec. ’13)
Dr. William Mustain, an assistant professor of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, is the recipient of a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science Early Career Award, which is one of the most competitive in the United States, with only 65 awarded annually. The Early Career Research Program supports the research pursuits of exceptional young scientists, and creates career opportunities in various research fields. Dr. Mustain’s five-year, $800,000 award was presented by the Office of Basic Energy Science.
The award will bring new equipment to the university and fund two graduate and two undergraduate students over the life of the grant. Dr. Mustain’s proposal, “Room Temperature Electrochemical Upgrading of Methane to Oxygenate Fuels,” will focus on the development of a new type of electrochemical device that converts methane, from natural gas or biogas, to liquid fuels, like methanol, at room temperature. This low temperature operation is a significant improvement over state-of-the-art methane-to-fuels processes that operate at very high temperatures, sometimes more than 900°C. They also generally convert methane to syngas then employ a second process to convert the syngas to other chemicals and fuels. These extra steps add both cost and complexity to the process.
According to Dr. Mustain, the research team will focus on understanding the fundamental mechanisms for the transformation of methane to methanol at ultra-low temperatures, bypassing the syngas intermediate, as well as determining the optimal design conditions to maximize methane conversion and methanol selectivity.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this process is that it is able to operate at or near room temperature (20-50°C), which has a number of advantages. “There will be lower energy required for the process, and much lower cost because you do not need high quality heat and you have a wider range of materials that you can consider,” said Dr. Mustain. He hopes to leverage all of the work that has been done on other electrochemical devices, like batteries and fuel cells, over the last 20 years to make rapid improvements on his prototype.
There are a variety of practical applications for this research. For instance, methanol can be used as a direct energy carrier, and as a fuel source for small portable power applications or cars using a direct methanol fuel cell. Methanol is also one of the top 25 industrial chemicals in the world, which means it has a range of uses. In addition, it can be easily converted to formaldehyde, which is another top 25 industrial chemical.
Dr. Mustain’s previous research has involved the design of new catalyst materials for fuel cells, capacitors and lithium-ion batteries. He also has received the Illinois Institute of Technology Young Alumni Award. For more about his DOE-funded research, please visit http://science.energy.gov/early-career/.