Grant for $540,000 Supports Maria L. Carreon’s Research to Convert Greenhouse Gases to Fuels

Maria Carreon portrait Image by Edwin L. Aguirre
Asst. Prof. Maria L. Carreon

By Edwin L. Aguirre

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently recognized Asst. Prof. Maria L. Carreon of the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering with a prestigious faculty early career development grant, called the CAREER award.
This highly competitive annual program selects the nation’s best young university faculty-scholars “who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization,” according to the NSF.
Carreon, who joined UMass Lowell in 2021, is developing technology to capture planet-warming greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane from the atmosphere and convert them to clean-burning fuels, using reactors that could operate on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.
Smoke stacks
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity and heat is the largest single source of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Carreon will use her NSF award, worth nearly $540,000 spread over five years, to support her research project.
“Our research group is using a process called nonthermal, or low-temperature, plasma catalysis to convert carbon dioxide and methane to platform precursor chemicals that could significantly reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases while producing oxygenated chemical raw materials and fuels,” says Carreon.
Platform chemicals are the essential building blocks used by the chemical processing industries to produce high-value chemical products.
One such building-block chemical is methanol, the simplest alcohol. Methanol and its derivative products are used in hundreds of everyday products, including acrylic plastics, synthetic fabrics and fibers, adhesives, paints, construction materials, and pharmaceutical and agricultural chemicals. 
Carreon Research Group Image by Edwin L. Aguirre
Carreon, center, and graduate students Shelby Guthrie, left, and Gorky are using an atmospheric cold plasma membrane reactor to convert greenhouse gases to oxygenated chemical raw materials and fuels.
“Methanol is also a clean energy resource used to fuel cars, trucks, buses, ships, fuel cells, boilers and cooking stoves,” says Carreon.
Assisting Carreon in the lab research are Ph.D. student Gorky and master’s student Shelby Guthrie, both in the energy engineering program.
Understanding Plasma Chemistry Reaction Mechanisms 
According to Carreon, current production of oxygenated chemicals from greenhouse gases is done through a method called dry methane reforming, which requires large-scale, complex, high-pressure and high-temperature reaction processes and multistep manufacturing operations with significant carbon footprints. 
“Therefore, there is a critical need to explore more sustainable alternatives,” she says. 
Plasma membrane reactor close-up
The top photo shows the plasma membrane reactor. When electricity is turned on (bottom photo), the reactor creates plasma, or ionized gas, and the resulting chemical reaction converts carbon dioxide and methane from the atmosphere into methanol.
Over the next five years, the team’s plasma-driven approach will be investigated for the single-step production of oxygenated chemicals from greenhouse gases under mild reactor conditions – less than 200 degrees Celsius (about 400 degrees Fahrenheit) in temperature and at atmospheric pressure – while making use of renewable electrical power sources not connected to a central power grid.
“Our research, although fundamental in nature, will lead to a better understanding of the chemical and physical mechanisms at work in plasma-enhanced conversion of greenhouse gases,” says Carreon. “We will design and test plasma-catalytic membrane reactor concepts, with the goal of achieving chemical processing conditions that are energy-flexible and efficient.”
This technology could potentially expand employment and business opportunities in this emerging field, she adds.
Plasma-Assisted Catalytic Production of Ammonia
In addition to her NSF CAREER grant, Carreon has an ongoing research project supported by an NSF grant worth nearly $207,000 that aims to make the production of ammonia more sustainable and energy-efficient.
Ammonia is used to make fertilizers for agriculture as well as in many pharmaceutical and commercial cleaning products. It is also used as a refrigerant gas, for purification of water supplies and as a building block in the manufacture of plastics, explosives, textiles, pesticides, dyes and other useful chemicals.
“One important driving force to investigate ammonia synthesis is a possible application of ammonia as fuel in a future hydrogen economy due to its high hydrogen content, which can act as a carrier molecule,” Carreon says.
Her goal is to design an alloy catalyst for a new plasma-assisted ammonia synthesis process that requires less energy. According to Carreon, close to 2% of the world’s energy is spent synthesizing ammonia using a high-pressure, high-temperature chemical method called the Haber-Bosch process.
“Plasma catalysis is emerging as a promising alternative method for producing ammonia efficiently at moderate pressure and temperature, while relying on renewable energy resources,” she says. 
A resident of Lowell, Massachusetts, Carreon earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Universidad Michoacana in Mexico and a doctorate from the University of Louisville in Kentucky, all in the field of chemical engineering.