Project Advances Environmentally Friendly Metals Production
By Mark Dwortzan
A team of materials science and engineering graduate students from Professor Uday Pal’s (ME, MSE) research group won the silver medal and an $8,000 cash prize at the TECO Green Tech Contest in Taiwan for their project, “Innovative Green Technology for Cost-Effective Metals Production.” Accompanied by Pal for the final competition in late August, the BU team placed second among 19 teams representing universities from China, Japan, Russia, Singapore and the US.
The purpose of the annual contest is to foster international research collaborations and technical creativity to advance technologies designed to save energy and reduce carbon emissions, from renewable energy production methods to electric vehicles. Teams were judged on creativity, technical content and feasibility, and completeness. The contest was organized by TECO Technology Foundation, Industrial Technology Research Institute and RITEK Foundation.
The BU team (PhD students Shizhao Su, Yihong Jiang and Yiwen Gong, and MEng student Xiao Han) was recognized for demonstrating and modeling solid oxide membrane (SOM) electrolysis, an inexpensive, energy-efficient, environmentally friendly, one-step method that Pal has developed over the past 15 years to separate pure metals from their oxides. SOM electrolysis continuously feeds metal oxide into a molten salt bath, where electricity splits it into metal and oxygen gas in separate chambers.
Conventional metals production technologies employ a lot of carbon-based energy sources to reduce oxides, and generate significant amounts of pollutants, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. SOM electrolysis promises to substantially decrease energy consumption and eliminate carbon and other environmentally harmful emissions associated with reducing oxides to metals, all for less cost. Using this method, the students successfully produced light structural metals (aluminum and magnesium), solar-grade silicon and critical rare earth metals (dysprosium and ytterbium).
”The students employed an innovative inert anode that for the first time enabled oxygen and metal production in separate chambers,” said Pal, who advised the team along with Professor Soumendra Basu (ME, MSE) and Adam C. Powell, IV, CTO of Infinium, a Natick-based company spun off from Pal’s lab that’s working toward scale-up of this technology. “They engineered the process and made it universally applicable for energy-intensive metals production.”
“I was thrilled when ‘Boston University’ was announced as silver medalist,” said Yihong Jiang. “It was a great experience for us to see that we can compete on an international stage with top universities.” Jiang and his teammates will use the cash prize to present and promote their work at future professional society meetings and conferences.
Green Tech Contest teams presented a diverse set of innovative ideas to reduce energy consumption and environmental impact. The contest’s gold medal went to a team from China’s Zhejiang University for its wave-propelled, ocean-monitoring vehicle. Taking bronze was a team from Tsinghua University, also based in China, for its energy-efficient technology to charge electric vehicle batteries. Other entries ranged from personal micro-grid kits to a regenerative braking system for trains.