UMass Lowell’s Carreon Wins Grant to Research Converting Greenhouse Gases to Fuel

UMass Lowell mechanical and industrial engineering Assistant Professor Maria L. Carreon. (Courtesy photograph.)

UMass Lowell mechanical and industrial engineering Assistant Professor Maria L. Carreon joined an esteemed group of researchers this semester as she was recognized by the National Science Foundation with an early-career, faculty development grant to assist in her efforts to convert greenhouse gases to different types of fuel.

She is among 15 UMass Lowell researchers to receive such a distinction in the last five years.

Known as a CAREER award, these grants help scientists who are starting their careers establish deep and impactful research practices. This highly competitive annual program selects the nation’s best young university faculty-scholars “who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization,” according to the National Science Foundation.

Carreon, who joined UMass Lowell in 2021, is developing technology to capture planet-warming greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane from the atmosphere and convert them to clean-burning fuels, using reactors that could operate on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. She will use her $538,659 award over five years to support this research.

Oxygenated chemicals are currently produced from greenhouse gases via a method called dry methane reforming, which requires large-scale, complex, high-pressure and high-temperature reaction processes and multi-step manufacturing operations. Given the significant carbon footprint of these processes, said Carreon, “There is a critical need to explore more sustainable alternatives.”

Over the next five years, Carreon and her graduate-level students will investigate a plasma-driven approach involving a single-step production of oxygenated chemicals from greenhouse gases under mild reactor conditions relying on renewable electrical power sources not connected to a central power grid.

“Our research group is using a process called nonthermal, or low-temperature, plasma catalysis to convert carbon dioxide and methane to platform precursor chemicals that could significantly reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases while producing oxygenated chemical raw materials and fuels,” said Carreon.

While she said she is excited about the breakthrough she hopes to make in fuel generation, she also noted the importance of doing so in a sustainable manner.

“Our research, although fundamental in nature, will lead to a better understanding of the chemical and physical mechanisms at work in plasma-enhanced conversion of greenhouse gases,” said Carreon. “We will design and test plasma-catalytic membrane reactor concepts, with the goal of achieving chemical processing conditions that are energy-flexible and efficient.”

In addition to the CAREER grant, Carreon has an ongoing research project supported by another NSF grant that aims to make the production of ammonia more sustainable and energy-efficient.

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