Peng Zhu (left) and Haotian Wang developed a carbon-capture device prototype. Photos courtesy Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

A Rice University lab has developed an efficient, scalable way to capture carbon dioxide — and it just needs to be plugged into a power outlet to work.

The new technology developed in the lab of chemical and biomolecular engineer Haotian Wang, the William Marsh Rice Trustee Chair and an associate professor at Rice, uses electricity to remove carbon dioxide from air capture to induce a water-and-oxygen-based electrochemical reaction. The findings were shared in a study published in Nature last month.

Traditionally, carbon capture requires very energy intensive processes that need high temperatures and for the carbon that's been captured to be regenerated. The process also often requires large-scale infrastructure.

In the Wang lab's method, the small reactor can continuously remove carbon dioxide from a simulated flue gas with nearly 100 percent efficiency, generating between 10 to 25 liters of high-purity carbon using only the power of a standard lightbulb, according to a statement from Rice.

It does not create or consume chemicals, nor does it need to be heated up or pressurized, according to Wang. And it only requires a simple power source.

"The technology can be scaled up to industrial settings—power plants, chemical plants—but the great thing about it is that it allows for small-scale use as well: I can even use it in my office,” Wang says in the statement. “We could, for example, pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and continuously inject that concentrated gas into a greenhouse to stimulate plant growth. We’ve heard from space technology companies interested in using the device on space stations to remove the carbon dioxide astronauts exhale.”

Wang and lab member Peng Zhu, a chemical and biomolecular engineering graduate student at Rice and lead author on the study, initially made the discovery when working on an earlier version of the reactor intended for carbon dioxide utilization.

During this process Zhu noticed that gas bubbles flowed out of the reactor’s middle chamber when producing liquid products like acetic acid and formic acid, and that the number of bubbles would increase when more current was applied to the reactor.

This led the scientists to realize that the reactor was creating carbonate ions that were converted into a continuous flow of high-purity carbon dioxide after passing through the reactor's solid-electrolyte layer.

“Scientific discovery often requires this patient, continuous observation and the curiosity to learn what’s really going on, the choice not to neglect those phenomena that don’t necessarily fit in the experimental frame," Wang said in a statement.

A number of players in the Houston area have been making headway in carbon capture space in recent weeks.

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Department of Energy granted more than $45 million in federal funding to four Houston companies to promote the capture, transportation, use, and storage of tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

The Rice Alliance also recently named 15 startups to its Clean Energy Accelerator. A number of the fledgling companies are focused on carbon management and capture.

Video by Brandon Martin/Rice University

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Houston's energy industry deemed both a strength and weakness on global cities report

mixed reviews

A new analysis positions the Energy Capital of the World as an economic dynamo, albeit a flawed one.

The recently released Oxford Economics Global Cities Index, which assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the world’s 1,000 largest cities, puts Houston at No. 25.

Houston ranks well for economics (No. 15) and human capital (No. 18), but ranks poorly for governance (No. 184), environment (No. 271), and quality of life (No. 298).

New York City appears at No. 1 on the index, followed by London; San Jose, California; Tokyo; and Paris. Dallas lands at No. 18 and Austin at No. 39.

In its Global Cities Index report, Oxford Economics says Houston’s status as “an international and vertically integrated hub for the oil and gas sector makes it an economic powerhouse. Most aspects of the industry — downstream, midstream, and upstream — are managed from here, including the major fuel refining and petrochemicals sectors.”

“And although the city has notable aerospace and logistics sectors and has diversified into other areas such as biomedical research and tech, its fortunes remain very much tied to oil and gas,” the report adds. “As such, its economic stability and growth lag other leading cities in the index.”

The report points out that Houston ranks highly in the human capital category thanks to the large number of corporate headquarters in the region. The Houston area is home to the headquarters of 26 Fortune 500 companies, including ExxonMobil, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Sysco.

Another contributor to Houston’s human capital ranking, the report says, is the presence of Rice University, the University of Houston and the Texas Medical Center.

“Despite this,” says the report, “it lacks the number of world-leading universities that other cities have, and only performs moderately in terms of the educational attainment of its residents.”

Slower-than-expected population growth and an aging population weaken Houston’s human capital score, the report says.

Meanwhile, Houston’s score for quality is life is hurt by a high level of income inequality, along with a low life expectancy compared with nearly half the 1,000 cities on the list, says the report.

Also in the quality-of-life bucket, the report underscores the region’s variety of arts, cultural, and recreational activities. But that’s offset by urban sprawl, traffic congestion, an underdeveloped public transportation system, decreased air quality, and high carbon emissions.

Furthermore, the report downgrades Houston’s environmental stature due to the risks of hurricanes and flooding.

“Undoubtedly, Houston is a leading business [center] that plays a key role in supporting the U.S. economy,” says the report, “but given its shortcomings in other categories, it will need to follow the path of some of its more well-rounded peers in order to move up in the rankings.”

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

New collaboration to build data center microgrid in Houston

coming soon

Two companies are teaming up to build a natural gas microgrid in Houston that will reduce emissions by 98 percent.

Provider of prime and backup power solutions RPower has teamed up with Houston’s ViVaVerse Solutions to build a 17-megawatt (MW) microgrid at the ViVa Center campus in Houston, which is expected to be commissioned by the end of the year.

The microgrid plans to employ ultra-low emissions and natural gas generators to deliver Resiliency-as-a-Service (RaaS), and this will connect to ViVaVerse's colocation data center operations during utility outages.

RPower will also deploy the microgrid across different ERCOT market programs, which will contribute to assist with essential capacity and ancillary services for the local grid. ERCOT has increased its use of renewable energy in recent years, but still has faced criticism for unstable conditions. The microgrids can potentially assist ERCOT, and also help cut back on emissions.

“RPower's pioneering microgrid will not only deliver essential N+1 resiliency to our data center operations but will also contribute to the local community by supplying necessary capacity during peak demand periods when the electric grid is strained,” Eduardo Morales, CEO of ViVaVerse Solutions and Morales Capital Group, says in a news release.

ViVaVerse Solutions will be converting the former Compaq Computer/HPE headquarters Campus into an innovative technology hub called the ViVa Center, which will host the High-Performance Computing Data Center, and spaces dedicated to mission critical infrastructure and technical facilities . The hub will host 200 data labs.

“We are thrilled to partner with ViVaVerse to deploy this `first of its kind' microgrid solution in the data center space,” Jeff Starcher, CEO of RPower, adds. “Our natural gas backup generation system delivers the same reliability and performance as traditional diesel systems, but with a 98 percent reduction in emissions. Further, the RPower system provides critical grid services and will respond to the volatility of renewable generation, further enabling the energy transition to a carbon free future.”