Professor’s research could lead to creation of alternative fuels
Published: Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 04:05
In the basement of Brown Laboratory, a university professor is researching a way to convert the world's most prevalent greenhouse gas into a form of alternative energy.
Professor Joel Rosenthal, who specializes in inorganic chemistry, has spent the past year and a half researching a process which siphons carbon dioxide from the Earth's atmosphere and transforms it into synthetic fuel.
Rosenthal said he initially became interested in renewable energy and molecular energy conversion while working toward his doctoral degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology more than three years ago.
Rosenthal said the issue of greenhouse gas emission is critical in the discussion of global climate change. He began research on his current project last summer.
"We realized that, ultimately, scientists and societies are going to need to find a way to capture carbon dioxide as opposed to just burying it," Rosenthal said. "Why not find a way to not only capture it but be able to convert it to valuable chemical fuel?"
Rosenthal said his research focuses on the design of efficient catalysts that will activate the change from carbon dioxide into fuel.
His lab performs inorganic and organic synthesis to induce a reaction with carbon dioxide that releases energy and reduces the greenhouse gas into useful fuels.
"If we are successful, our work has the potential to redefine the way we think about using renewable energy," Rosenthal said. "If our catalysts can take these inputs and generate ‘green gasoline' and other fuels, the impact will be huge."
According to Rosenthal, the most important principle of his research is that the process to convert carbon dioxide to fuel is energetically "uphill." Unlike other processes that create energy and liberate it, Rosenthal's process would harness the energy, store it and put it to practical use by using it as an alternative energy source.
Though the project is in its early stages, Rosenthal hopes to be able to define the principles of the process within five to 10 years.
He said he hopes the findings from his research will eventually be used to develop commercially and industrially relevant systems and will be implemented in motor vehicles.
"Hydrogen fuel cells require the redesign of a vehicle from the ground up," Rosenthal said. "One of the nice things that makes our system attractive is that you wouldn't have to totally reinvent the combustion engine."
Chemistry and biochemistry department chair Klaus Theopold said Rosenthal's research presents an alternative solution to increasing greenhouse gases. He said the climate change problem stems from the overwhelming number of carbon-containing fuels that are being used to generated energy.
He said the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been increasing over the past 200 years.
"Our world essentially runs on burning fossil fuels and the emissions into the atmosphere are staggering," Theopold said. "We're basically experimenting with our own planet and, unfortunately, we don't have another one to run to."
Rosenthal said university officials have emphasized the expansion of faculty research.
"There is a good young nucleus of researchers, especially in this department," Rosenthal said. "The very obvious emphasis on the energy arena made the university a very attractive place to do research."
Piyal Ariyananda, a post-doctoral fellow and 2010 graduate of the university's doctoral program, heads the project's research team and said he joined Rosenthal's project because he saw the opportunity to grow as a chemist while also affecting the climate change issue.
"Once the results are implemented commercially, many different areas will be affected," Ariyananda said. "This will be enormous."
Doug Doren, associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, said Rosenthal's research is important for the university.
"This project addresses a sweet spot in technology that provides more than one benefit," Doren said. "And what's remarkable about Joel Rosenthal is that he's only been here for a year and half and his work is already being recognized for creativity and impact."