UVA Leading Grant to Advance Renewable Natural Gas

September 17, 2021

Recently the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced $64.7 million in funding for projects focused on producing cost-effective, low-carbon biofuels. These research and development investments are seeking to advance technologies that create replacements for petroleum fuels used in heavy-duty transportation and accelerate a path to a net-zero emissions economy by 2050.  

Researchers at the University of Virginia (UVA) were selected for a $2.3 million in funding as a part of this DOE program. UVA Chemistry Professor Sen Zhang, and Engineering Professors Lisa Colosi-Peterson and Robert Davis are seeking to advance the efficiency, costs and carbon management of renewable natural gas (RNG) through their project, “Low Temperature CO2 Methanation for Biogas-to-Renewable Natural Gas Conversion via Advanced Ni-Based Catalysts.” Other major participants in the study include the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the South Platte Renew and the City of Longmont, Colorado.

Professor Sen Zhang, photo courtesy of UVA.

Professor Zhang leads the UVA Zhang Lab which focuses on the development of functional materials for clean energy and environmental sustainability applications.

The research team aims to develop a low-temperature thermocatalytic carbon dioxide (CO2) methanation process to directly convert CO2 in biogas to methane (CH4), producing pipeline quality RNG. They plan to create a highly active, durable and selective nickel Ni-based CO2 methanation catalyst that allows the reaction unit to operate at low temperature. Success of this innovation will advance the state of the art in catalyst materials for biogas-to-RNG conversion processes with improved energy efficiency, operational cost and carbon management.

Their strategy to advance the performance of catalytic CO2 methanation involves the development of Ni-based bimetallic nanoparticles with controlled sizes, compositions and nanoparticle-support interactions. This includes:

1) enhancing the activity through control over the size of Ni nanoparticles and the nanoparticle-support interactions,

2) improving the stability and sulfur resistance through the modulation of Ni bimetallic nanoparticles,

3) optimizing the process operation conditions (pressure, temperature and regeneration) through scale-up studies and industrial reactor tests, and

4) guiding technical advancements towards effective cost targets and environmental benefits by an integrated techno-economic (TEA) and life cycle (LCA) analysis.

Their work will improve biogas-to-RNG technology by increasing RNG yields to utilize >95 percent of biogas carbon and eliminating the need for CO2 separation. It will also provide a biogas industry-oriented guidance involving catalyst performance evaluation, reactor and process modeling, and TEA/LCA. Moreover, it will lead to improvements in the productivity and stability of CO2 methanation catalysts by increasing our understanding of the fundamental science and the applied engineering involved.