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Award Supports Graduate Student's Research in Pollution Prevention

Date: Aug. 21, 2001
Story and photos by: Chris Curran
Phone: (513) 556-1806
Archive: Research News

University of Cincinnati graduate student Donovan Pena is the 2001 recipient of the University Distinguished Dissertation Fellowship for Physical Science and Engineering - an honor which will help support his research into new methods for burning coal without producing harmful pollutants. Donovan Pena

Under the direction of his adviser, College of Engineering Professor Peter Smirniotis, Pena is using a technique called SCR (Selective Catalytic Reduction) to reduce the amount of nitrogen oxides released when coal is burned. These pollutants fall under the general category known as NOx compounds.

The project began more than six years ago with Smirniotis, Professor Robert Jenkins and another graduate student, Nicolao Economidis. The work initially focused on catalyst development of NOx removal from flue gases at medium temperatures (300-400 degrees Celsius) and was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

"The timing was perfect when Donovan came," said Smirniotis. "He did some very interesting fundamental studies, then we decided to look at the low-temperature area as well, because it was an area with real potential.

"The area is extremely promising," said Smirniotis. "You're not only reducing pollution. You can save money as well."

That's because the catalysts Pena has developed can work at lower temperatures. "Our goal is the creation of a catalyst capable of operating at temperatures that industry desires."

In the lab, Pena has been able to get catalytic activity at temperatures as low as 80 degrees Celsius. Catalysts currently used in coal-fired power plants work at higher temperatures (325-400 degrees C). Donovan Pena

"Reactions have not been reported at temperatures this low," said Pena. The result is the transformation of the NOx compounds formed during coal combustion into nitrogen gas and water. Once again, the process looks very promising in the lab.

"We can get close to 100 percent removal of NOx compounds at the lab scale," said Smirniotis. "Of course, it won't be the same in a power plant, but we're getting very exciting results."

One of the most important things about Pena's catalyst is the selectivity. By the nature of the SCR process, extremely active catalysts tend to transform the pollutant, nitric acid, into both nitrogen and nitrous oxide (N2O). The latter is another pollutant. Pena's process shuts the oxygen out, so only pure nitrogen gas is predominantly formed. Donovan Pena

The research is already attracting interest from industry and is currently supported by the Ohio Coal Development Office, which recently approved a four-year, $350,000 grant. A patent also has been filed on the catalyst, which combines manganese oxide with titanium dioxide.

This is the third time one of Smirniotis' students has earned UC's Distinguished Dissertation Award during the last four years. Smirniotis himself was recently honored with the BP America Faculty Excellence Award.

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