Grant for $875,000 Supports Chemical Engineering Professor’s Project on Clean Hydrogen Production

Asst. Prof. Fanglin Che
Asst. Prof. Fanglin Che’s research expertise includes electrocatalysis, multiscale modeling, electric fields, carbon dioxide conversion and machine learning.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has selected Asst. Prof. Fanglin Che of the Department of Chemical Engineering as one of 93 rising scientists and engineers from across the country to receive its prestigious Early Career Research Program Award. The award comes with a five-year, $875,000 grant that will support Che’s research into the production of carbon-neutral hydrogen.
According to the agency, “These awards are a part of the DOE’s long-standing efforts to develop the next generation of STEM leaders to solidify America’s role as the driver of science and innovation around the world.”
Che’s goal is to use a computational approach to study catalysis (the process of accelerating a chemical reaction by a catalyst) enhanced by electric fields. Her research will investigate the effects of electric fields on the production of carbon-neutral hydrogen from the catalysis of ammonia. 
“This is the first time this kind of research is being conducted – that is, combining multiscale simulation and an interpretable machine learning approach to accelerate field-enhanced catalysis,” says Che, who joined UMass Lowell in 2019.
Asst. Prof. Fanglin Che's research team Image by Edwin L. Aguirre
Che with her research team, from left, Runze Zhao (Ph.D. student), Jaime Notarangelo and Charles Milhans (undergraduate students), and Yuting Xu, Saleh AhmatIbrahim, Pragyansh Singh and Zhengyang Yang (Ph.D. students).
Currently, the catalysis is done through industrial processes such as ammonia cracking, which uses metal catalysts like nickel, cobalt and copper, which are abundant in nature, at a relatively high temperature. 
“The goal of using electric fields is to lower the temperature requirement of the catalytic process,” Che notes.
The largest sources of ammonia come from the decomposition of organic matter from animal waste in agriculture as well as from fertilizers used to grow crops.
“It’s called carbon-neutral hydrogen since the only other product of ammonia’s catalysis is nitrogen, which is environmentally friendly,” says Che. “There is no carbon dioxide emission involved.”
She says the study could potentially improve the energy efficiency of carbon-neutral hydrogen’s production by obtaining pure hydrogen from the resulting cracked gas, as well as getting the highest possible yield from the ammonia-to-hydrogen conversion while still emitting zero carbon dioxide. The hydrogen gas could then be used in fuel cells to generate electricity and as a clean energy source for industry, homes and hydrogen-powered cars.
This year’s DOE winners will receive a total of $135 million in funding for their research projects. The program’s goal is to bolster the nation’s scientific and engineering workforce by supporting exceptional researchers at the outset of their careers, when many of them do their most formative work.
In addition to Che, the other awardees include researchers from Texas A&M University, the University of Chicago, Stanford University, Cornell University, Brown University, Columbia University and Princeton University, as well as a dozen DOE national laboratories. Their research covers a wide range of topics, from artificial intelligence to astrophysics to fusion energy.
Che’s UML research team includes Ph.D. students Mingyu Wan, Saleh AhmatIbrahim, Runze Zhao, Yuting Xu, Pragyansh Singh and Zhengyang Yang (co-advised with Prof. Zhiyong Gu) and undergraduate students Jaime Notarangelo and Charles Milhans, all in chemical engineering. Her external collaborators are Asst. Prof. Hongfu Liu of Brandeis University, Asst. Prof. Prashant Deshlahra of Tufts University and Aspen Products Group Inc. in Marlborough, Massachusetts.
Using Electric Fields to Enhance Catalytic Performance
Che and her research team will develop novel deep-learning algorithms and multiscale modeling and simulations to investigate the fundamental science of catalysis enhanced by electric fields in the lab.
“This area of research has extensive applications in renewable energy technologies, such as plasma catalysis, electrostatic catalysis, electrocatalysis and fuel cells,” says Che. “Field-enhanced chemical processes provide a sustainable, energy-efficient and modular setup to store renewable electricity chemically.”
She says integrating modeling and machine learning algorithms can lead to the development of new materials and new catalyst designs based on computational and experimental data, rather than by trial and error.
A resident of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, Che earned her doctorate in chemical engineering from Washington State University in 2016.