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Smit to head new Energy Frontiers Research Center

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Berend Smit
Berend Smit

April 29, 2009

Chemical engineering professor Berend Smit will receive $10 million over the next five years from the U.S. Department of Energy as the leader of one of 46 new Energy Frontiers Research Centers (EFRC). Smit will look for better ways to separate carbon dioxide from power plant and natural gas well emissions and stick it permanently underground.

The announcement was made by the White House in conjunction with an address by President Obama to the National Academy of Sciences at its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., at which he pledged big increases in funding for scientific research.

"As global energy demand grows over this century, there is an urgent need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and imported oil and curtail greenhouse gas emissions," said Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, former LBNL director and UC Berkeley professor of physics. "Meeting this challenge will require significant scientific advances."

Smit's Center for Gas Separations Relevant to Clean Energy Technologies, to be funded by the DOE through the Berkeley campus, aims to develop improved methods for extracting carbon dioxide from flue gases in power plant emissions, and from the methane in natural gas wells, so that the CO2 can be returned underground.

Next generation carbon capture methods will have to be much more efficient than today's methods, which typically involve washing emissions and then extracting CO2 using up to 25 percent of the energy produced by the power plant, he said.

"We hope that we don't need to use these next generation carbon capture methods and that solar and other alternatives will be there in time," Smit said. "But we want to have the technology available to put the CO2 in the ground in an efficient, cheap way that may buy us the essential time we need to develop alternative energy technologies."

The center's work involves computer modeling of new materials that more efficiently separate CO2 from other gases. Among the most promising materials are metal-organic frameworks, which are much like the porous zeolites that Smit is an expert in modeling.

With colleague Jeffrey Long, a UC Berkeley professor of chemistry and a faculty scientist at LBNL, Smit and their collaborators will then make and test these new materials to determine which chemical structures work best.

Donald DePaolo, a professor of earth and planetary science and head of the Earth Sciences division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, will also head an EFRC which will be focused on carbon capture and sequestration. However, DePaolo's Center for Nanoscale Control of Geologic CO2 will focus on the geological issues surrounding sequestration, primarily how CO2 interacts with the pores inside underground rocks and minerals.

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