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U.S. Congresswoman Ross Visits Li Group for NSF-PFI Project Kickoff Meeting

On Monday, November 27th, U.S. Representative Deborah Ross visited the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering to learn more about a new $1M project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will use pilot reactors and new catalytic reagents in Dr. Fanxing Li’s lab to convert waste gas from a steel manufacturing site into sequestrable CO₂ and green hydrogen.

Congresswoman Ross represents North Carolina’s 2nd District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Prior to her legislative career, she was a lawyer working to build North Carolina’s clean energy future, helping to create thousands of jobs in renewable energy. During her time as a state legislator, Congresswoman Ross voted to support energy alternatives, halt fracking, and implement measures to reduce emissions in North Carolina. Throughout her tenure in Congress, she has been a member of the House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology.

Dr. Li and Congresswoman Ross met for the first time in June 2022. Given the congresswoman’s long background in renewable energy and sustainability, she expressed great interest in the project, and stated she would be happy to visit Dr. Li’s labs. The Kickoff Meeting held on Monday, November 27th was attended by a large group of interested parties including the congresswoman, members of the Kenan Institute of Engineering, Technology, and Science and the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and representatives from Nucor Corp, Johnson Matthey, and Eastman Chemical Company. During the meeting, the congresswoman also toured the project’s facilities inside Engineering Building I and MAE West.

The general focus of Dr. Fanxing Li’s research is energy, advanced chemical manufacturing, and CO₂ capture and utilization. This particular research topic evolved from seed funding from the Kenan Institute and Dr. Li’s NSF CAREER Award in 2013-14. At that time, the group was investigating fundamental properties of redox active mixed metal oxides for biomass tar conversion and water-splitting. That research led to two patents and new ideas to break the equilibrium barriers for water-splitting, which eventually materialized in the new NSF-PFI Project, Carbon Free Hydrogen from Waste Gas for Greener Steel Manufacturing, with collaborators and strong support from Nucor Corporation and Johnson Matthey.

The underlying idea of the project is to rationally design mixed metal oxides with suitable properties between its affinity for oxygen and the lattice oxygen vacancy concentrations. With such materials, a countercurrent exchange of oxygen with the waste gas stream will produce sequestrable CO₂ on one end of the reactor and clean hydrogen on the other. Dr. Li’s group will take advantage of Johnson Matthey’s expertise in catalyst design and synthesis, as well as Nucor’s unique facilities and skill in direct iron reduction to push this technology towards field demonstration within three years. If successfully commercialized, they anticipate a potential for 50% reduction in CO₂ emissions and $26M/year worth of H₂ from Nucor’s Convent site alone. The technology can also be translatable to convert waste gas from other types of chemical plants. The group is discussing a few other exciting approaches to produce carbon-negative iron and steel, sustainable aviation fuels, and CO₂ capture and utilization.

As already mentioned, one of the partners on the project is Nucor Corporation, North America’s most sustainable steel and steel products company, which is headquartered in Charlotte, NC. The Nucor team hopes that one of the outcomes of the partnership with Dr. Li’s green steel project will aid in their sustainability goal to reach net-zero, science-based greenhouse gas targets for 2050. The second industrial partner is Johnson Matthey, a global leader in sustainable technologies for over 200 years. Many of the world’s leading energy, chemicals and automotive companies depend on Johnson Matthey’s technology and expertise to decarbonize, reduce harmful emissions and improve their sustainability.

Jim Pfaendtner, the Louis Martin Vega Dean of the College of Engineering, expressed deep appreciation for Congresswoman Ross taking the time to visit the college and Dr. Li’s lab, and moreover, for her strong support of science and technology.  He also discussed the impact of Dr. Li’s research, both with respect to sustainable production of iron and steel and also on student learning: “Our chemical engineering students not only have the tools to tackle the complex environmental and global challenges that the world faces, but they also have the desire to work on these problems.  This project is ideal for training the workforce of the future.” Congratulations, Dr. Li, and a big thank you to Congresswoman Ross for her unwavering support of impactful research.