Tech Tour Day Five: Fired Up Chips Are Chemical Experts

Tech Tour Day Five: Fired Up Chips Are Chemical Experts

October 3, 2011/CBS Detroit


By Matt Roush

 

MT. PLEASANT — Mid-Michigan is home to several universities that are frequently overlooked given the giant shadow cast by Michigan, Michigan State and Wayne State.

 

Well, Monday was another example of how Michigan’s mid-majors are doing just fine, thank you, when it comes to using and researching high tech in an effort to build the Next Michigan.

 

My first stop Monday was Central Michigan University, where my day began with LeRoy S. Barnes, director of plant energy and utilities, and Steve P. Lawrence, associate vice president of facilities management. They offered an overview of CMU’s use of a wood chip boiler to reduce costs and dependence on natural gas while providing 70 percent of the campus’ heating needds and 5 percent of its electric power.

 

The wood chip boiler uses wood chips from a local forester — 37,000 tons a year. The boiler produces steam at 450 pounds per square inch, which is used to turn a one-megawatt electric generator — the aforementioned 5 percent of the school’s electric needs. The steam comes out of that generator at 60 pounds per square inch and is used for a variety of on-campus needs, from hot water to humidification to air conditioning. (Yes, steam is used in air conditioning.)

 

CMU also has its own 3.2 megawatt natural gas generator, and the 1,200-degree exhaust from that unit, basically a stationary jet engine, is used to make steam as well.

 

All this saves CMU $400,000 a year vs. other electric alternatives.

 

CMU also has 64 solar panels providing heat at its new Education Building, and a geothermal system at a 12,000-square-foot academic building on remote Beaver Island in Lake Michigan.


 

My final three CMU visits were in its chemistry building — lending credence to that old Dow saw, “better living through chemistry.” In this case, it’s true.

 

Professor Dillip Mohanty has applied for a United States patent on his work on an improved version of carbon black that will be used to filter dangerous mercury out of the smokestack emissions of coal-fired power plants.

 

Despite climate change concerns, Mohanty said nothing is going to replace coal any time soon as a primary source for U.S. electric generation — mostly because we have 500 years’ worth left, he said.

 

And while it’s possible to scrub out coal emissions’ other nasty side effects, from sulfur to oxides of nitrogen, it’s very difficult to removre mercury. He said coal power plants today release 190 to 240 tons of mercury into the atmosphere each year, with various ill effects — among them, making many fish inedible as a steady diet.

 

The current state of the art for mercury filtration is passing smokestack emissions through carbon black, which works on a purely mechanical basis — it’s sticky so the mercury sticks to it. Mohanty’s invention adds a chemical bond to that mechanical attraction — a very specific kind of polymer. Those polymer-carbon combinations have been shown in lab tests to capture more mercury compared to plain carbon. The used carbon containing the mercury is inert and can be landfilled, Mohanty said.

 

Mohanty has applied for funding from the Michigan Initiative for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, an effort of the state’s 15 public universities, for more testing.


 

Next up — literally, up a flight of steps — was Bradley Fahlman, who is working on advanced battery materials for the next generation of lithium ion batteries — and the technologies beyond.

 

Fahlman’s research has been funded by the United States Army’s Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Command, and he’s applying for more funding from the Army Research Office to continue the work.

 

Specifically, he’s studying nanographenes as anode materials for batteries, an advance over current graphite — nanographenes made by chemically unzipping carbon nanotubes and turning them into ribbons.

 

That leads to better battery cycling performance, and is not hard to produce. And it means much greater battery capacities — 1,400 milliamp-hours per gram of battery vs. the current 372 for graphite.

 

Obviously, that makes for lighter, longer-lasting batteries. Given the Army’s modern electronic battlefield, no wonder they’re interested, but wait a few more years and this stuff might be turning up in your cell phone or portable computer. (Well, if it’s an iPhone or an Android, those two are the same thing.)


 

My final stop on a gorgeous fall morning was with Anja Muller, who’s working on filters as well — but filters for a nasty family of chemicals called perchlorate.

 

“Not many people really now what perchlorate is but hopefully that’s changing,” she said. “It’s a neurotoxin that’s harmful to developing brains. You get retardation in children if you drink too much of it.”

Making matters worse, she said, perchlorate doesn’t stick to anything, including soils it’s dumped in, and loves water and accumulates in it.

 

The material is a byproduct of rocket fuel and is a problem at defense facilities nationwide. Thus some of Muller’s work on remediating it has been funded by the Defense Department.

 

Muller said she hit upon both the material for the filter and its design accidentally as part of a project team that was working toward groundwater remediation of perchlorate. “I accidentally invented the perfect filter,” is how she described it.

 

She’s understandably reticent to discuss either the filter material or its physical design, given that she is still working on applying for patent protection. But she said it could be made to fit common household water filters like those made by Brita and Pur. The potential market is huge, biven that 10 percent of U.S. households’ water shows perchlorate, 4 percent above recommended maximums.

 

Muller also is applying for MIIE funding for further testing and design work.


And so my Chippewa Morning ended. I left mightily impressed with the capabilities of the chemists at Tech to solve serious societal problems, and look forward to seeing how things are going on this stuff a year from now. And with that, it was off to Big Rapids and a visit with some Ferris State Buldogs.




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