A Rice University team researching carbon nanotube synthesis has received $4.1 million funding from both Rice’s Carbon Hub and The Kavli Foundation. Photo by Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

A Rice University-led team of scientists has been awarded a $4.1 million grant to optimize a synthesis process that could make carbon materials sustainable and affordable on a large scale.

Known as carbon nanotube (CNT) synthesis, the process has the ability to create hollow cylindrical nanoscale structures made from carbon atoms that are strong, lightweight and carry heat and electricity well. CNT synthesis evolved across multiple countries around the same time, according to Rice. But to scale up the process in a way that could create alternatives to materials dependent on heavy industry, Matteo Pasquali, the team's leader and the A.J. Hartsook Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, says collaboration will be required.

“We have to apply a collaborative mindset to solve this problem,” Pasquali says in a statement. “We believe that by bringing together a dedicated interdisciplinary community, this project will lead to improvements in reactor efficiency and help identify further gaps in instrumentation and modeling.”

The grant seeks to achieve that. The funds come from both Rice’s Carbon Hub, which contributed $2.2 million to the team, and The Kavli Foundation, which granted $1.9 million in the form of a Kavli Exploration Award in Nanoscience for Sustainability.

The Kavli Foundation supports research in astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience and theoretical physics. Winners of its Kavli Prize, which recognizes scientific breakthroughs, often go on to win the Nobel Prize.

“We are proud to partner with Rice University to support this important high-risk, high-reward research,” says Amy Bernard, director of life sciences at The Kavli Foundation, says in a statement.

Pasquali is the director and one of the creators of Rice's Carbon Hub, a collaborative group of corporations, researchers, universities and nonprofits focused on decarbonizing the economy. He says the grant will help the team develop tools to shed light on CNT formation and reaction zones.

“We are at a critical juncture in carbon research, and it is really important that we shed light on the physical and chemical processes that drive CNT synthesis,” Pasquali says. “Currently, reactors are black boxes, which prevents us from ramping up synthesis efficiency. We need to better understand the forces at play in CNT formation by developing new tools to shed light on the reaction zone and find ways to leverage it to our advantage.”

Boris Yakobson, the Karl F. Hasselmann Professor of Engineering and professor of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice, and Thomas Senftle, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Rice, are also involved in the project. Other collaborators hail from the UK, Italy, Korea, and Spain, as well as U.S. labs and universities, including Harvard, Stanford, MIT and others.

In October, a separate team of Rice researchers released a study on a new synthesis process with applications in developing commercially relevant solar cells.

Researchers at the University of Houston are proposing that supplying hydrogen for transportation in the greater Houston area could also be profitable. Photo via UH.edu

Houston research shows how much hydrogen-powered vehicles would cost at the pump

hi, hydrogen

It's generally understood that transitioning away from gas-powered vehicles will help reduce the 230 million metric tons of carbon dioxide gas released each year by the transportation sector in Texas.

Now, researchers at the University of Houston are proposing that supplying hydrogen for transportation in the greater Houston area could also be profitable.

The research team has done the math. In a white paper, "Competitive Pricing of Hydrogen as an Economic Alternative to Gasoline and Diesel for the Houston Transportation Sector," the team compared three hydrogen generation processes—steam methane reforming (SMR), SMR with carbon capture (SMRCC), and electrolysis using grid electricity and water—and provided cost estimates and delivery models for each.

The team found that SMRCC hydrogen can be supplied at about $6.10 per kilogram of hydrogen at the pump, which they say is competitive and shows promise for hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs).

FCEVs refuel with hydrogen in five minutes and produce zero emissions, according to UH.

"This research underscores the transformative potential of hydrogen in the transportation sector,” Alexander Economides, a co-author on the study, UH alumnus and CEO Kiribex Inc., said in the statement. “Our findings indicate that hydrogen can be a cost-competitive and environmentally responsible choice for consumers, businesses, and policymakers in the greater Houston area."

Economides was joined on the paper by co-authors Christine Ehlig-Economides, professor and Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Chair at UH, and Paulo Liu, research associate in the Department of Petroleum Engineering at UH.

Additionally, the team says Houston is an ideal leader for this transition.

“(Houston) has more than sufficient water and commercial filtering systems to support hydrogen generation,” the study states. “Add to that the existing natural gas pipeline infrastructure, which makes hydrogen production and supply more cost effective and makes Houston ideal for transitioning from traditional vehicles to hydrogen-powered ones.”

The study also discusses tax incentives, consumer preferences, grid generation costs and many other details.

A University of Houston team looked into what areas in Houston had the highest impact on emissions and how certain meteorological factors play into ozone formation. Photo via UH.edu

UH team unlocks innovative approach to pinpoint pollution factors

zooming in on emissions

A team of researchers at the University of Houston are using machine learning to help guide pollution fighting strategies.

As reported in the journal Environmental Pollution last month, the team used the SHAP algorithm of machine learning (a game theory approach) and the Positive Matrix Factorization to pinpoint what areas in Houston had the highest impact on emissions and how certain meteorological factors play into ozone formation.

The paper was authored by Delaney Nelson, a doctoral student at the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences of UH, and Yunsoo Choi, corresponding author and professor of atmospheric chemistry, AI deep learning, air quality modeling and satellite remote sensing.

The team's research closely tracked nitrogen-based compound and volatile organic compound measurements from Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's monitoring stations in the Houston area. After importing measurements from The Lynchburg Ferry station in Houston's ship channel and the urban Milby Park station, the machine learning and SHAP analysis showed a chemically definitive difference between the two areas.

For example, at the industrial station, the most impactful sources of pollution were from oil and gas flaring/production. At the urban site n_decane and industrial emissions/evaporation had the most impact on ozone.

According to Nelson and Choi, this shows that the machine learning and SHAP analysis approach can be used to tailor more precise air quality management strategies in different areas based on the site's unique characteristics.

“Once we know the specific emission sources and factors, we can develop targeted strategies to reduce emissions, which will in turn reduce ozone in the air and make it healthier for everyone," Choi said in a statement.

“Pollution is a critical issue in Houston, where you have extreme high heat and high concentration of ozone in the summers. The types of insights we got are very useful information for the local community to develop effective policies. That’s why we put our time, effort and technological expertise into this project," he continued.

Next the team envisions applying their approach in different cities and across the country.

“Austin, San Antonio and Dallas all have different characteristics, so I expect (volatile organic compound) sources will also be different,” Choi said. “Identifying VOC sources in different cities is very important because each city should have its own unique pollution fighting strategy.”

This summer, the City of Houston released an updated report on its major strategies to combat climate change and build a more resilient future for its residents.

Venkatesh Balan and his team at UH are researching ways fresh- and salt-water phototropic organisms, or microalge, can sequester carbon from industrial refineries and convert it into useful byproducts. Photo via UH.edu

Houston team researching how algae can combat climate change

seeing green

Researchers at the University of Houston are looking at an alternative way to capture carbon that uses a surprising conduit: algae.

In a newly published article in Green Chemistry, a journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Venkatesh Balan, associate professor of engineering technology at UH, details how he and his team are researching ways fresh- and salt-water phototropic organisms, or microalgae, can sequester carbon from industrial refineries and convert it into useful byproducts.

Balan is joined by UH researchers James Pierson and Hasan Husain, Sandeep Kimar from Old Dominion University, Christopher Saffron of Michigan State University, and Vinod Kumar from Cranfield University in the United Kingdom.

According to a release from UH, Balan and research assistant Masha Alian have uncovered how microalgae can produce fungus like lichen and create healthy food products. After microalge captures the carbon, it then converts that CO2 into mass-produced proteins, lipids and carbohydrates, according to the team's research.

“We are coming up with the alternate approach of using algae to fix the CO2 then using the carbon to make bioproducts that are useful to mankind,” Balan said in the release.

The method offers an alternative to other carbon capture options that aim to burry carbon, which is expensive and energy intensive, according to UH.

Balan says this research also has applications in wastewater treatment and the production of food, fertilizers, fuels and chemicals, all of which could lessen the dependency on fossil fuels in the future.

"On your table or in your pantry, you see food products. What’s harder to visualize are the greenhouse gasses emitted by the orchard that grows the fruit, the factory that makes the breakfast cereal, the transportation that brings the cookies to your neighborhood, even your own commute to buy the food," Balan said. "It adds up, but the problem is easy to ignore because we can’t see it. Yet all consumers contribute, in our own way, to the greenhouse effect.”

The UH team is just one of many Houston groups looking at unconventional, although natural ways to combat climate change.

In September, Rice University announced that two researchers were awarded a three-year grant from the Department of Energy for their research into the processes that allow soil to store roughly three times as much carbon as organic matter compared to Earth's atmosphere.

Rice University engineers and collaborators developed a technology that converts light into electricity. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Houston research team develops breakthrough process for light-harvesting crystals in DOE-backed project

solar success

A team of Rice researchers have developed a breakthrough synthesis process for developing light-harvesting materials that can be used in solar cells to convert light into electricity.

Detailed in an October study in Nature Synthesis, the new process is able to more closely control the temperature and time of the crystallization process to create 2D halide perovskites with semiconductor layers of “ideal thickness and purity,” according to a release from Rice.

The process, known as kinetically controlled space confinement, was developed by Rice University chemical and biomolecular engineer Aditya Mohite, along with others at Northwestern University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Rennes. The research was backed by the Department of Energy, the Army Research Office, the National Science Foundation and a number of other organizations.

“This research breakthrough is critical for the synthesis of 2D perovskites, which hold the key to achieving commercially relevant stability for solar cells and for many other optoelectronic device applications and fundamental light matter interactions,” Mohite said in a statement.

Traditional synthesis methods for creating 2D halide perovskites, which have been shown to offer a high-performance low-cost way to produce solar cells, have generated uneven crystal growth when attempting to reach a higher n value. And uneven crystal growth can result in a less reliable material, while a high n value can result in higher electrical conductivity, among other benefits.

The study shows how the kinetically controlled space confinement method can gradually increase n values in 2D halide perovskites, which will assist in the production of crystals with a certain thickness.

“We designed a way to slow down the crystallization and tune each kinetics parameter gradually to hit the sweet spot for phase-pure synthesis,” Jin Hou, a Ph.D. student at Rice and a lead author on a study, said in a statement.

The process is expected to improve the stability and lower the costs of emerging technologies in optoelectronics, or the study and application of light-emitting or light-detecting devices, and photovoltaics, the conversion of thermal energy into electricity.

"This work pushes the boundaries of higher quantum well 2D perovskites synthesis, making them a viable and stable option for a variety of applications,” Hou added.

Houston universities have been making major strides relating to crystallization processes in recent months.

In September, the University of Houston announced The Welch Foundation awarded its inaugural $5 million Catalyst for Discovery Program Grant to establish the Welch Center for Advanced Bioactive Materials Crystallization. The center will build upon UH professor Jeffrey Rimer's work relating to the use of crystals to help treat malaria and kidney stones.

Over the summer, a team of researchers at UH also published a paper detailing their discovery of how to use molecular crystals to capture large quantities of iodine, one of the most common products of radioactive fission, which is used to create nuclear energy.
A Rice University study will consider how "design strategies aimed at improving civic engagement in stormwater infrastructure could help reduce catastrophic flooding." Photo via Getty Images

Houston university to lead new NSF-back flooding study

risk mitigation

Houston will be the setting of a new three-year National Science Foundation-funded study that focuses on a phenomenon the city is quite familiar with: flooding.

Conducted by Rice University, the study will consider how "design strategies aimed at improving civic engagement in stormwater infrastructure could help reduce catastrophic flooding," according to a statement.

The team will begin its research in the Trinity/Houston Gardens neighborhood and will implement field research, participatory design work and hydrological impact analyses.

Rice professor of anthropology Dominic Boyer and Rice's Gus Sessions Wortham Professor of Architecture Albert Pope are co-principal investigators on the study. They'll be joined by Phil Bedient, director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice, and Jessica Eisma, a civil engineer at the University of Texas at Arlington.

According to Boyer, the study will bring tougher researchers from across disciplines as well as community members and even elementary-aged students.

"Our particular focus will be on green stormwater infrastructure—techniques like bioswale, green roofs and rain gardens—that are more affordable than conventional concrete infrastructure and ones where community members can be more directly involved in the design and implementation phases,” Boyer said. “We envision helping students and other community members design and complete projects like community rain gardens that offer a variety of beneficial amenities and can also mitigate flooding.”

Rice's Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center, or SSPEED Center, is a leader in flood mitigation research and innovation.

In 2021, the center developed its FIRST radar-based flood assessment, mapping, and early-warning system based on more than 350 maps that simulate different combinations of rainfall over various areas of the watershed. The system was derived from the Rice/Texas Medical Center Flood Alert System (FAS), which Bedient created 20 years ago. Click here to read more.

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Houston companies land DOE vouchers for clean tech

money moves

Ten Houston-area companies will receive vouchers from the Department of Energy's latest round of funding to support the adoption of clean energy tech.

The companies are among 111 organizations to receive up to $250,000 in vouchers from the DOE's Office of Technology Transitions, totaling $9.8 million in funding, according to a release from the department.

The voucher program is in collaboration with the Offices of Clean Energy Demonstrations (OCED), Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (FECM), and Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). It is funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

“It takes a breadth of tools and expertise to bring an innovative technology from research and development to deployment,” Vanessa Z. Chan, DOE Chief Commercialization Officer and Director of the Office of Technology Transitions, says in a statement. “The Voucher Program will pair 111 clean energy solutions with the support they need from expert voucher providers to help usher new technologies to market.”

In addition to the funding, the program seeks to help small businesses and non-traditional organizations gain access to testing facilities and third-party expertise.

The vouchers come in five different opportunities that focus on different areas of business growth and support:

  • Voucher Opportunity 1 (VO1) - Pre-Demonstration Commercialization Support
  • Voucher Opportunity 2 (VO2) - Performance Validation, Modeling, and Certification Support
  • Voucher Opportunity 3 (VO3) - Clean Energy Demonstration Project Siting/Permitting Support
  • Voucher Opportunity 4 (VO4) - Commercialization Support (for companies with a functional technology prototype)
  • Voucher Opportunity 5 (VO5) - Commercialization Support (for developers, including for-profit firms, that are working to commercialize a prototype that fits a specific technology vertical of interest for DOE)

The 10 Houston-area companies to receive funding, their voucher type and projects include:

  • Terradote Inc. with Big Blue Technologies Inc. (VO2): Full ISO-Compliant Life Cycle Assessment for Clean Energy Technologies
  • Solugen Inc. and Encina with ACTion Battery Technologies L.L.C. and Frontline Waste Holding LLC (Vo2): Barracuda Virtual Reactor Simulation, Validation and Testing
  • Flow Safe with Concept Group LLC and Precision Fluid Control (VO2): Durability Testing of Hydrogen Components, Materials, and Storage Systems
  • Percheron Power LLC (VO4): Fundraising Support
  • Capwell Services Inc. with Banyu Carbon Inc. (VO5): Field Testing Support for Validation of Novel Resource Sustainability Technologies
  • Syzygy Plasmonics with Ample Carbon PBC, Terraform Industries, Lydian Labs Inc. and Vycarb Inc. (VO5): Rapid Life Cycle Assessment for Carbon Management or Resource Sustainability Technologies
  • Solidec Inc. with GreenFire Energy (VO5): LCA Calculator Tool for Carbon Management or Resource Sustainability Technologies
  • Encino Environmental Services LLC with Wood Cache, Completion Corp and Carbon Lockdown (VO5): Realtime Above/Underground Gas Monitoring Reporting and Verification, Including Cloud Connectivity for Remote Sites
  • Mati Carbon PBC with Ebb Carbon Inc. (VO5): Community Benefits Assessment and Environmental Justice

Other Texas-based companies to receive funding included Molecular Rebar Design LLC and Talus Renewables from Austin, Deep Anchor Solutions from College Station, and ACTion Battery Technologies LLC from Wichita Falls.

Last October, the DOE also awarded the Houston area more than $2 million for projects that improve energy efficiency and infrastructure in the region.

In December, its Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations also selected a Houston power company for a commercial-scale carbon capture and storage project cost-sharing agreement.

New global report names top cleantech startups to keep an eye on

seeing green

Nine Greentown Labs members were recognized on a global list honoring cleantech companies.

Houston-based Fervo Energy was named to Cleantech Group’s Global Cleantech 100 report. Cleantech Group is a research-driven company that aids the public sector, private sector, investors, and also identifies, assesses, and engages with the innovative solutions around climate challenges.

Fervo, a geothermal energy company that specializes in a renewable energy technology that uses hot water to produce electricity, debuted in 2022 on the list, and was honored in the “Energy & Power” category for the second straight year.

The other Greentown Labs, which is dual located in Houston and Somerville, Massachusetts, companies recognized on the list include:

  • Amogy, a New York-based novel carbon-free energy system using ammonia as a renewable fuel
  • Carbon Upcycling Technologies, a Canadian waste and carbon utilization company
  • Dandelion Energy, New York-based company offering ground source heat pumps for most homes
  • Energy Dome, a Milan-based company addressing the problem of long-duration energy storage
  • e-Zinc, a Canadian company with a breakthrough electrochemical technology for energy storage
  • Nth Cycle, a Massachusetts company with sustainable metal refining
  • Raptor Maps, a Massachusetts company with a software platform for solar assets' performance data management
  • Sublime Systems, a Massachusetts companydeveloping a breakthrough process for low-carbon cement
  • WeaveGrid, a California company working with utilities, automakers, EVSEs, and EV owners to enable and accelerate the electrification of transportation

The number of nominations from the public, a panel, i3, awards and Cleantech Group totaled 25,435 from over 65 countries, which is a 61% increase from the 2023 nomination process. Winners were chosen from a short list of 330 companies by a panel of over 80 industry experts.

While not on the list, Beaumont-based Fortress Energy was mentioned for its electrolyzer supply agreement with Cleantech Group 100 winner Electric Hydrogen.

The Cleantech Group 100 was started 15 years ago.

“In 15 more years, we will be at 2039—by which time, a mere decade out from the ‘net-zero’ target of 2050,” Cleantech Group CEO Richard Youngman says in the report. “I would expect the composition of our annual list to have markedly changed again, and the leading upcoming private companies of that time to reflect such.”