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Electrified reactors could decarbonize industrial chemical production

The massive reactors churning industrial chemicals today are fired by fossil fuels. A new approach would use electromagnetic induction to heat with clean, renewable electricity.

Jonathan Fan is an associate professor of electrical engineering, a field that is not traditionally associated with chemical production. But as an expert in electromagnetics, Fan saw an opportunity at the interface of electrical and chemical engineering to decarbonize the production of industrial chemicals – an industry that is a major producer of greenhouse gases.

Jonathan Fan
Jonathan Fan

In 2022, Fan received a Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability Accelerator grant to build a prototype reactor that uses electricity instead of fossil fuels to reach the intense heat needed to power chemical reactions. The results were so promising that the Department of Energy recently awarded the team $3 million to scale up their reactor. 

What is the sustainability problem you are working on?

It takes a lot of heat to make plastic, fertilizer, and any number of commodity industrial chemicals and materials for the world’s 8 billion people. Historically, this heat has been produced by the combustion of fossil fuels, producing a lot of greenhouse gases. In fact, nearly a third of greenhouse gas emissions come from industrial processes, and the majority of these emissions are due to the generation of heat via combustion. 

My background is in electrical engineering and the intersection of electromagnetics, optics, and materials science. This is not traditionally a hotspot for sustainable chemical production, but I’ve always been interested in sustainability. It’s just an incredibly important research direction. 

About five years ago, I started to think about how we might use renewable electricity to power chemical reactors. We decided to focus on the utilization of induction heating of chemical reactions using a high-frequency magnetic field to generate sufficient and efficient heat with electricity. If you can power such a system with solar, wind, or other renewable electrical energy sources, you can decarbonize the chemical industry and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Induction heating is a well-known concept and is not new. However, the key question for us was whether we could utilize electrified heating to enhance reactor performance, which is particularly important when considering the relatively high cost of renewable electricity over natural gas. Along these lines, we targeted reactor designs in which the method of heating is co-designed with the chemical reaction process itself. We found that these concepts could help us reduce reactor size, among other benefits.

That was the seed of the idea. Then the pandemic hit, and I spent that time almost as a sabbatical, working on this concept, reading textbooks, and talking with industry experts. We got it to the stage where I got really excited. Then, this call for proposals came out from the Sustainability Accelerator and I just decided to pitch this idea. It got funded. It was one of those incredible experiences. That is what the Accelerator grant is all about. It’s exploring novel and practical pathways to decarbonization at the earliest stages, when it’s tough to get funding otherwise. 

What will the funding and team approach help you do?

It turns out that volumetric heating with electricity within a reactor is not at all a solved problem. The seed grant was really about finding out: Can you actually heat a reactor with electricity in a scalable, efficient, and volumetric manner? Part of the solution involved developing and utilizing new power electronics, which we addressed through a very close collaboration with my EE colleague Juan Rivas. There was also the question of what reaction to target. Through the Accelerator, I got in touch with another grant-winner, Stanford chemist Matt Kanan, who was developing a new catalyst for converting CO2 to CO. The reaction was an ideal one to prototype our reactor with because it consumes heat and targets the reforming of a sustainable carbon feedstock. In addition, the catalysts are inexpensive and relatively easily produced. He and I were completely on the same page in our synergistic focus on new technical concepts with translational impact. 

Through the Accelerator, we got funds to hire a student and postdoc to build a working reactor prototype and acquire test equipment. As important, the discretionary nature of the funding allowed us to convert one of my optics labs to a chemical engineering lab. We were able to pay for things like hiring plumbers to put in pipes and manifolds for gas handling. It is nearly impossible to get government grants that can be used for this type of purpose so we were very fortunate and grateful to use Accelerator funds in this manner. 

Through the hard work of my group, we managed to create a working reactor from scratch, including all of the power electronics, reactor internals, Matt’s catalysts, and fully automated controls. With our prototype system, we showed that we could convert an external electricity source to internal volumetric reactor heat with approximately 90% efficiency. It was a true Stanford interdisciplinary collaboration across EE and chemistry. Now, looking forward, we’re hoping to bring in and work closely with industry. We have a number of industrial partners already.

What are you most excited about with this work?

About a year and a half ago, I knew this was going to work and we needed to think about scaling up our efforts. We needed to think about life after the Accelerator grant, and that led us to the Department of Energy grant to develop a larger-scale electrified reactor. I’m really excited about that, largely because it really allows us to engage more people across campus to really bring this to fruition. 

There are four other co-PIs on the Department of Energy grant. Juan Rivas and Matt Kanan are on the project and will be continuing to push the capabilities of power electronics and catalysts, respectively, in scaled-up reaction systems. Joe DeSimone, from chemical engineering, will be working on high-throughput additive manufacturing of bespoke, optimized reactor components serving as heating susceptors and catalyst supports. And finally, mechanical engineer Matthias Ihme, an expert in computational fluid dynamics and combustion, will bring a rigorous computational framework to the multiphysics design and modeling of our structured reactors.

Today, we have so many more tools than we did back when reaction engineering was really maturing as a field decades ago. We have supercomputers. We have high-throughput additive manufacturing. We have new types of power electronics. There are new concepts in control theory. And we have new catalysts. Even though reaction engineering is considered a mature field, electrified reaction engineering is just taking off and will lead to reinventing the field.

This is a chance to take this interesting collaboration to something much bigger and longer term. Everyone really understands the vision and is really excited to contribute. And it was all made possible by the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and that initial Accelerator grant. I think this is a great proof of concept of how the Accelerator takes really new, unproven ideas and gives them legs.

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