(2go) Environmentally-Relevant Electrochemical Separations Beyond Drinking Water | AIChE

(2go) Environmentally-Relevant Electrochemical Separations Beyond Drinking Water


Boualavong, J. - Presenter, Pennsylvania State University
Research Interests

Many contemporary environmental issues, from exposure to chemical hazards to climate change, have substantial chemical separations questions: how can we remove chemical hazards from the industrial effluents before discharge, and how can we remove legacy pollutants that are already present in the environment? Most importantly, how can these separations processes themselves be as environmentally benign as possible over the course of their lifecycle? Given that separations processes account for about half of US industrial energy use, new low-energy alternatives are necessary, which electrochemistry has been shown to help achieve.

To date, despite the versatility of the electrochemistry toolset, most applications of electrochemistry to environmental separations problems have focused on drinking water applications due to easy parallels in battery and fuel cell technologies. However, as I demonstrated in both my Master's (copper recovery from distillery wastewater) and PhD (CO2 capture from power plant flue gas), these techniques can be applied to remove environmental hazards from industrial effluents. I am specifically interested in expanding upon my PhD research in which I performed a systematic computational analysis to complement the trial-and-error experiments in the area of electrochemically-controlled CO2 sorbents. I developed a framework for understanding how relatively easily measured thermodynamic measurements, e.g. the Gibbs energies of protonation reactions, place physical limits on energy demand and capture rate -- and ultimately bound electrochemical carbon capture's cost. These computational studies were supplemented by bench-scale experiments to demonstrate a metal coordination complex-based approach that my calculations suggested as feasible and energetically promising but was previously absent from the literature.

The results of my work suggest not only which underlying chemistries for electrochemical CO2 capture are most promising for future work, but also what sorbent properties would be ideal to achieve low energy demands and fast capture rates, providing clear research directions for future sorbent screenings and bench-scale testing. Beyond this direct application of my prior work, I am also interested in (1) exploring how this electrochemical CO2 capture technology can fill another gap in the CO2 infrastructure to assist in CO2 compression, (2) measuring the long-term stability of CO2 sorbents in the electrochemical process and determining the environmental implications of the decomposition products, and (3) exploring how these electrochemically controlled sorbents can be used for other gas separations, starting with SOx and NOx compounds from combustion flue gases. A particular interest for me is in seeing the feasibility of simultaneous removal of all three compounds to reduce the overall treatment footprint due to the already-existing need to remove all three pollutants.

While I am ultimately seeking a faculty position, I am also open to postdoctoral opportunities in one of the following areas: high temperature/pressure electrochemistry; hydrometallurgy of critical minerals; chemometrics and design of experiments; and fate, transport, and health impacts of air pollutants. I believe that learning techniques, methods, and concepts in any of these areas will allow me to ask interesting scientific questions at the intersection of these fields and my expertise in electrochemical sensing and separations, leading to a fruitful collaboration that can push disciplinary boundaries.

Teaching Interests

I approach my teaching with a foundation in three different engineering disciplines -- biomedical (BS), chemical (MPhil), and environemntal (PhD) -- as well as in the humanities (historiography and ethics). As a result, I have seen how the core chemical engineering principles are central to problems in other disciplines like subsurface transport and pharmacokinetics and how the technologies we develop and society mutually impact each other. This has given me an appreciation for chemical engineering as lens through which we can see the world at large, an idea that I wish to convey through my teaching. While there are likely gaps in my chemical engineering knowledge as a result of my nontraditional training, I will be able to leverage the breadth of my background to broaden students' perceptions of the discipline, challenging historically narrow conceptions of the field.

With this intention in mind, I plan not only to create a new elective course based on my own research background in electrochemical separations and hydrometallurgy but also to update any core undergraduate courses that I teach to include applications to contemporary problems in environmental sustainability and public health, with an emphasis on ethical and social considerations therein. These curricular updates have the potential added benefit of recruiting and retaining students who may have sought those applications in other STEM departments, diversifying the field. I am particularly interested in teaching foundational courses that students will take early in the curriculum, particularly the introductory course that first exposes students to chemical engineering concepts. These early courses are where my nontraditional background will be of greatest value, establishing the breadth of what chemical engineers do in both a technical and ethical/sociohistorical sense. I believe that it is in this early stage that we should give students a sense of the departmental culture and disciplinary expectations, both technical and professional, so that they can practice contextualizing their work with how it could and would be applied.