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Research Themes
Sustainable Design
One of the main pillars of process systems engineering is the field of process design—that is, combining chemical engineering unit operations together into a working process system. At the MACC, we are working to develop new and innovative chemical processes which improve the "triple-bottom-line of sustainability"—meaning that the processes are not only more environmentally friendly, but also socially acceptable and yet still economical. This can take several forms, such as reducing or eliminating CO2 emissions at low cost, reducing the amount of fossil fuels that must be consumed, increasing the use of renewable resources, reducing the "cradle-to-the-grave" life-cycle impact of a process, or improving the thermal efficiency.

The primary challenge is that the three tiers of the triple-bottom-line are often in conflict. However, we can make large headway into the sustainability problem by developing processes which produce chemicals and energy products in a more sustainable way. This might include processes which use existing technology in better ways (such as polygeneration, coal and biomass gasification, etc.), or processes which exploit new or up-and-coming technologies (such as solid oxide fuel cells, semicontinuous systems, novel sorbents for mass transfer, and photo-bioreactors). We use state-of-the-art process simulations, process synthesis algorithms and techniques, strategies for integrated design, control, and optimization, life cycle impact analyses, and techno-economic analyses to create, investigate, and analyze sustainable processes.

We are developing new, more sustainable processes which convert biomass, coal, natural gas, shale oil, and/or nuclear energy into energy products such as electricity, gasoline, diesel, methanol, dimethyl ether, and hydrogen. Process innovations can reduce lifecycle CO2 emissions, improve the thermal and carbon efficiencies, reduce fossil fuel consumption, and increase the profitability. For example, we are investigating processes which use solid oxide fuel cells to generate electricity. Not only are SOFCs efficient electrochemical devices, but when properly integrated into an energy system, electricity can be produced from fossil fuels with zero CO2 emissions. However, many challenges must be overcome before they can be used flexibly and reliably enough to satisfy peaking power demands at the municipal scale. Other projects of interest include flexible and sustainable polygeneration processes which can change their products throughout the day based on market prices or demand,... [read more]

Dr. Thomas A. Adams II
Associate Professor
Lingyan Deng
PhD Candidate
Leila Hoseinzade
PhD Candidate
Haoxiang Lai
Ph.D. Candidate


In this topic, we are looking at the design of new technologies which can help create liquid fuels in a more sustainable way. For example, we are currently developing new syngas cooling technology to be used inside of a downdraft gasifier. Currently, a radiant syngas cooler can be used to cool very hot coal-derived syngas by producing steam. While this helps with thermal management, a significant amount of exergy is lost because the high-temperature heat (1300°C) is not used to its full potential. Therefore, we propose using the natural gas reforming reaction as the coolant mechanism, which produces valuable H2-rich syngas. Not only does this approach result in higher thermal efficiencies and higher profitability, but when properly integrated into a process which produces liquid fuels, results in lower CO2 emissions as well. Other new technologies currently in development include using high-temperature heat from a modular helium reactor to power natural gas reforming, and... [read more]

Dr. Thomas A. Adams II
Associate Professor
Ikenna Okeke
PhD Candidate


Semicontinuous chemical separation processes are unsteady-state processes which fall somewhere between traditional batch and traditional continuous processing. Typically, multiple separation steps are combined into one process unit, operating cyclically, but without startup and shutdown stages. For example, a single distillation column tightly integrated with a "middle" vessel (a tank which both feeds to and receives a side-draw from the column) can separate a three component mixture semicontinuously, whereas two distillation columns would be required for traditional continuous processing. Pioneering efforts into semicontinuous separations have demonstrated the economic superiority of the technique at intermediate production rates compared to traditional batch and continuous methods. This is particularly useful for the production of biofuels, where high transportation costs of biomass tend to incentivize the use of a distributed network of small biofuel plants as opposed to a... [read more]

Dr. Thomas A. Adams II
Associate Professor