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Professor receives $2 million grant to study clean energy production

| Wednesday, January 13, 2016

In accordance with “Laudato Si’,” the Pope’s encyclical on climate change this past year, Dr. Joan Brennecke, the Keating-Crawford Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Notre Dame, is working to develop technologies which will make energy production cleaner and recently received a $2 million grant from the United States Department of Energy to continue her work.

Brennecke said her work focuses on ionic liquids.

“Ionic liquids … are just salts that just have low melting points so that they’re pretty much liquid at room temperature,” she said. 

These liquids differ from normal salts in a major way, she said.

“So these salts that we make are not just sodium and chloride, they have some organic content to them,” she said. “They still have a cation with a positive charge and an anion with a negative charge, and it’s just because they’re a little more complicated, have more atoms in there, that they have a lower melting point.”

Brennecke said ionic liquids, which she has researched since 1998, have a combination of properties that define them as liquids that do not evaporate. This unique feature makes these liquids ideal for clean energy production, Brennecke said.

“They’re a liquid but they can’t cause air pollution,” she said. 

These ionic liquids also help reduce pollution by limiting the amount of carbon dioxide released, she said. 

“If you have a gas fixture, that contains carbon dioxide. You can get the carbon dioxide that goes into the ionic liquid and leave the rest of the gas fixture behind,” she said. “Then I can take my ionic liquid over to another place and release the carbon dioxide.”

While there is a huge potential for ionic liquids to help reduce climate change, there are properties of the liquids which pose problems, Brennecke said. 

“The problem is [ionic liquids] are kind of viscous, kind of gooey, so they’re more like mineral oil instead of water, a little bit gooier,” Brennecke said. “So what that means is that is that it’s hard to design them in a process when you’re trying to contact flue gas in liquid.”

With the grant money she received from the Department of Energy, Brennecke said she is working to solve this problem.

“This new project we’re working on is to encapsulate these ionic liquids in … little shells,” she said. “We want to see if we can improve the use of these ionic shells in a process.”

The use of these ionic liquids has far-reaching potential, she said.

“It is important for coal and natural gas power plants,” Brennecke said. “It’s the same … if you want to remove the carbon dioxide, this could be used for burning of any fuel source which has carbon dioxide in it, it could be biomass, it could be natural gas.”

Brennecke said her work connects to the Catholic mission of the University. 

“So this all kind of fits in well with the Pope’s encyclical on climate change,” she said. “So we like to believe we’re advancing the Catholic mission.”


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About Lucas Masin-Moyer

Lucas Masin-Moyer is a senior at Notre Dame majoring in Political Science and American Studies. He serves as Assistant Managing Editor, lived in Morrissey Manor and hails from Telford, Pennsylvania.

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