Advanced Materials, Energy Efficiency and Industry: How Research at the Penn State EMS Energy Institute is Pulling it All Together to Impact Climate Change

December 7, 2020

Photo: EMS Energy Institute

For Xiaoxing Wang, his research means two important things — the opportunity to serve humanity and the economic benefits that arise from solving contemporary problems.

Xiaoxing Wang

According to new Penn State research, a single-step, plasma-enhanced catalytic process to convert sulfur dioxide to pure sulfur from tail gas streams may provide a promising, more environmentally-friendly alternative to current multistage thermal, catalytic and absorptive processes used in industrial techniques. We spoke to Xiaoxing Wang, associate research professor at the Penn State EMS Energy Institute, to learn more about his work with advanced materials and novel technologies, and how it’s impacting the use of energy worldwide, environmental issues and the economy.

HappyValley Industry: What is your research topic and why is it important on a global scale?

Xiaoxing Wang: My research focuses on developing advanced materials and novel technologies to improve energy efficiency of current processes, reduce their environmental impacts and/or produce green alternative fuels. This research topic is conducted within the Penn State EMS Energy Institute Clean Fuels and Catalysis (CFC) program. I am currently serving as co-director of the CFC program. It is known that there are environmental problems associated with the use of energy worldwide, for example, the emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) from fossil fuels combustion. Desulfurization and CO2 capture and utilization (so-called CCUS) are the two main areas of my research.

HappyValley Industry: How do you envision your research impacting/changing your industry?

Xiaoxing Wang: Taking climate change as an example, which has already had wide ranging and significant impact across the globe, it is urgent to reduce the current CO2 emissions. We started our CO2 capture research a long time ago, back to 2001, under the CFC program, and have developed the adsorption technology based on our solid sorbents so-called molecular basket sorbent. Through the collaboration with RTI International, an independent, nonprofit research institute dedicated to improving the human condition, in North Carolina, we have successfully demonstrated that our carbon capture technology works well at the bench-scale with the support of the U.S. Department of Energy. The success of this research could greatly benefit the continuous and sustainable use of fossil fuels, and thus the global economy.

"The success of this research could greatly benefit the continuous and sustainable use of fossil fuels, and thus the global economy."

More recently, we applied nonthermal plasma to enhance catalytic processes. One typical reaction is SO2 reduction. Although it can be achieved by the conventional flue-gas desulfurization (FGD) technologies, those technologies produce substantial solid waste and wastewater, and thus are environmentally unfriendly and require additional cost for subsequent treatment. On the contrary, our newly developed process can easily convert SO2 into elemental sulfur at low temperatures (only 150 °C) using just 10W-plasma at the lab-scale, and it produces no waste, which is a big improvement on traditional processes.

HappyValley Industry: What inspired you to follow this line of research?

Xiaoxing Wang: I believe research should be conducted to serve humanity and benefit the economy, and it should be aligned with solving contemporary problems. My choice of research topics is in line with this philosophy. I also have a great deal of curiosity and passion for the science. When a new problem pops up, I always ask myself what we can do to solve it, how and why. Whenever a new idea presents itself, I can’t wait to test it out and discover why it works or why it does not, and look into whether there is an alternative/better way to approach it. I think both are crucial to the success of research.

"To meet energy needs in the new century, the research at the Energy Institute has expanded to cover all aspects of energy, including wind, solar, bio-energy, alternative fuels and related environmental challenges."

HappyValley Industry: Why did you choose to conduct this research at Penn State specifically?

Xiaoxing Wang: Penn State has the reputation of being a world-class research institution. Particularly, the Penn State EMS Energy Institute has a long history and strong background in energy research. In the early days, the Energy Institute was globally well-known for its coal research. To meet energy needs in the new century, the research at the Energy Institute has expanded to cover all aspects of energy, including wind, solar, bio-energy, alternative fuels and related environmental challenges.

HappyValley Industry: Would you encourage other researchers to make their home in Happy Valley, and why?

“'Happy Valley' has outstanding scientists and students from Penn State to work with you, and the outstanding administration team to support you. All they want is your success and happiness in conducting research and living in Happy Valley."

Xiaoxing Wang: Yes, of course, I do. “Happy Valley” is the nickname of State College. It is the home of Penn State and the surrounding communities. I would prefer it to be called “Happy Valley” than its official name of “State College” as you will feel “happy” when you live and work in this “valley.” This is the right place to conduct your research and will have everything you need for your research. As I said, “Happy Valley” has outstanding scientists and students from Penn State to work with you, and the outstanding administration team to support you. All they want is your success and happiness in conducting research and living in Happy Valley.

Live, Work, Play…Happy Valley!

Happy Valley Industry is the voice for innovation, research and industry in the Happy Valley region of Central Pennsylvania.

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