Monthly Archives: August 2014

Saving the world through alternative fuels

USC Wrigley Institute

By: Jeff Celaje

Global warming threatens our planet with important climate changes. Scientists have estimated that global temperatures have risen by 0.8 ᵒC since 1880, and some fear that global temperatures will rise by 4 ᵒC by the end of the century. This rise in temperature could bring coastal areas flooded by melting sea ice, crops destroyed by heat waves and droughts, and so on. The reality of this threat is being recognized by the world’s governments: the Climate Policy Initiative reported that for 2012, that the world spent an average of $1 billion a day on global warming.

Global warming is, in large part, caused by the combustion of fossil fuels for energy. This results in the production of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2). The burning of fossil fuels has already caused CO2 in the atmosphere to rise—from 285 parts per million in 1880, to 401 parts per million today. In light of this, one way to address the global warming problem is to look for alternative fuels that would allow us to curtail CO2 formation.

One such alternative fuel is methanol.


Carbon dioxide emissions are a concern for LA and the rest of the world

As a Ph. D. student in Prof. Travis Williams’ laboratory at USC’s Department of Chemistry and the Loker Hydrocarbon Institute, one of my projects is to develop new catalysts for the conversion of CO2 to methanol. With this reaction, we are attempting to take the very greenhouse gas responsible for global warming and turn it into an alternative fuel that can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

Our lab group has synthesized about a dozen new potential catalysts for conversion of CO2 to methanol. And while we have been looking hard for the right conditions with which to accomplish this reaction, we have thus far been unsuccessful.


Jeff in the lab

However, in one of our model studies, we have found that one of the catalysts did decompose formic acid into hydrogen (H2) and CO2. This reaction is important because formic acid is also a potential alternative fuel; hydrogen liberated from formic acid decomposition can be used in fuel cells. In other words, formic acid can be used as a hydrogen storage material.

Currently, hydrogen storage technologies are plagued by high costs and safety issues. But formic acid is a promising new hydrogen storage material because it is inexpensive, nontoxic, and an easily handled liquid. Importantly, the technology to efficiently generate formic acid from CO2 is already well developed; thus with this second reaction in place, formic acid holds the promise of being a carbon neutral fuel (i.e. it can be used as fuel with no net generation of CO2). This is the basis of my research this summer as a 2014 WIES Sonosky Fellow.

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The catalyst in action!

Despite a large amount of research by the scientific community, efficient catalysts for decomposing formic acid into hydrogen and CO2 have not really been developed. But we have found that our catalyst is capable of this more efficient process. The catalyst works efficiently under mild conditions, it is robust and can be reused without regeneration, and it does not decompose upon exposure to air or water. Moreover, the reaction proceeds with near perfect selectivity, producing only H2 and CO2 without other challenging byproducts.

We are currently working to patent and commercialize this technology and preparing a manuscript for publication. So at this point in this research project, the hard part is over. My efforts in the lab are now simply focused on the details of understanding how this catalyst works. For example, I have been collecting data on the “kinetics” of this catalyst when different concentrations are used. Collecting these data is actually a lot of fun—and I can enjoy knowing that the results of a really wonderful part of my Ph.D. studies will end up very well.

Jeff is a 2014 Norma and Jerol Sonosky Fellow: a WIES graduate fellowship dedicated to environmental themes, alternative energy, and sustainable solutions to environmental challenges. To learn more about Jeff’s research, visit the Williams Lab in the USC Chemistry Department.

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Changing kelp forest ecosystems

USC Wrigley Institute

By: Sam Ginther

Most people are familiar with terrestrial forests – the Amazon rainforest in South America, redwood forests of California, or the bamboo forests of Japan. Our world’s forests serve to feed and shelter numerous species, which we often harvest as natural resources.

Lesser-known, the marine forests found in temperate regions of the world such as California are in many cases equally important and productive. Large habitat forming kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera (giant kelp) dominates much of California’s rocky reefs, and has been shown to be beneficial to an array of fishes and invertebrates. Harvesting natural resources along California’s coast–like white seabass, kelp bass, and lobster–is a constant reminder to us that we rely heavily on a healthy kelp forest ecosystem.

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The beautiful kelp forest ecosystem

Recently an invasive alga, Sargassum horneri, made its first appearance at Santa Catalina Island in 2006. Within a year it spread along the entire leeward coast, forming dense groves in numerous areas. S. horneri has structures that allow it to disperse great distances. And it is able to self fertilize, making this introduced species a formidable competitor against native algal species, which in turn impacts kelp forest inhabitants. A seasonal species that matures in the fall and winter, its effects on fishes and algae are not well known in California.

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Invasive Sargassum alga growing on rocky bottom habitat

As a Master’s student at California State University, Northridge and a first-time USC Wrigley Institute Graduate Fellow, I aim to determine whether this invasive alga alters the native habitat significantly enough to affect fish community structure at Catalina Island. I am seeking to answer the questions: What types of fishes are impacted by the alga’s introduction? Are the sizes of fishes changing in impacted areas? What is it about S. horneri that causes any patterns I observe?

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Underwater at Catalina, surveying the community

At numerous sites along the front side of Catalina Island I have completed observational surveys of both algae and fishes, which will enable me to determine whether habitats in these areas are changing during different seasonal stages of S. horneri, and whether these changes affect fish populations. Currently, I am working to set up S. horneri “removal plots” that will help me to compare and understand any patterns I observe during these seasonal surveys.


Characterizing vegetation on the bottom

At this point, my 2014 Summer goals have almost been met; next, I intend to do similar work in the Fall, Winter, and Spring to gain deeper insight as to the impacts of S. horneri during the span of an entire year. My thesis work would not be possible without the use of SCUBA, and the Wrigley Institute of Environmental Studies staff who has been crucial to supporting my diving endeavors. Be on the look out for more posts about my work during the Fall, Winter, and Spring!

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