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ORNL to lead new center to create sustainable chemical industry processes

The Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory has been selected to lead an Energy Earthshot Research Center, or EERC, focused on developing chemical processes that use sustainable methods instead of burning fossil fuels to radically reduce industrial greenhouse gas emissions to stem climate change and limit the crisis of a rapidly warming planet.

“Our Energy Earthshots are game-changing endeavors to unleash the technologies of the clean energy transition and make them accessible, affordable, and abundant,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “The Energy Earthshot Research Centers and the related work happening on college campuses around the country will be instrumental in developing the clean energy and decarbonization solutions we need to establish a 100% clean grid and beat climate change.”

The ORNL-led Non-Equilibrium Energy Transfer for Efficient Reactions center, or NEETER, will coordinate a research team from across the nation focused on replacing bulk heating for chemical processes with electrified means, providing a new way to do chemistry, and decarbonizing large-scale processes in the chemical industry. DOE has committed $19 million over four years for the center.

“This center is an exciting opportunity to advance innovative methods for performing important chemical reactions with heat derived from electricity instead of burning fossil fuels,” said ORNL’s David Sholl, NEETER director. “Our world-class team will combine powerful fundamental insights with leadership-class computing to push forward use of mechanochemistry and resistive heating to achieve chemical outcomes that are simply not possible with traditional heating methods.”

Sholl, who also directs ORNL’s Transformational Decarbonization Initiative and serves as interim executive director of the University of Tennessee Oak Ridge Innovation Institute, will lead the effort, harnessing the expertise of more than 20 co-principal investigators from two other national laboratories and several universities. Zili Wu, ORNL distinguished research and development staff member and leader of the Surface Chemistry and Catalysis group, is NEETER’s deputy director.

In addition to ORNL, other center investigators come from DOE’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University and the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, Delaware State University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Princeton University, the University of Houston, and the University of Maryland.

The scientists, in addition to using their own laboratories, will use DOE Office of Science user facilities, including ORNL’s Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, Spallation Neutron Source, High Flux Isotope Reactor, and Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences. They will also include the beam line at SLAC.

NEETER’s proposed research is a radical departure from traditional chemistry and holds promise for transformational breakthroughs in energy-related chemical reactions. The NEETER EERC addresses the DOE’s Industrial Heat Shot announced in 2022, which aims to develop cost-competitive industrial heat decarbonization technologies with at least 85% lower greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. This EERC will employ new kinds of chemical catalysis as one pathway toward electrifying the delivery of process heat.

Industrial heat involves the burning of fossil fuels, which contributes massive amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. About 40% of those emissions come from chemicals and refining procedures. Because many industrial processes require extremely high energy, decarbonizing these chemical processes via electrification would radically alter the industrial chemical landscape.

Researchers propose two main ways of electrification, Sholl explained. One is through a process called mechanocatalysis, which creates mechanically initiated reactions. Another is Joule heating — using electricity to achieve very rapid temperature increases. The aim is to control chemical reactivity through temperature and pressure, by rapid heating in the Joule heating case, or by mechanical collisions in the case of mechanocatalysis.

NEETER’s mission is “To understand and control spatial and temporal non-equilibrium heat transfer to enable transformational breakthroughs in energy- and atom-efficient endothermic catalytic reactions beyond limitations of thermodynamic and kinetic equilibrium to decarbonize the US chemical industry.”

Said Sholl, “We envision a future where we use renewable electricity to provide heat and produce chemicals without greenhouse gas emissions.”

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit Lawrence Bernard