Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering has been renewed by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for a third round of funding ($13.2 million over four years) for its Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) to study materials used in c

Ryan Lively and Krista Walton

Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering has been renewed by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for a third round of funding ($13.2 million over four years) for its Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) to study materials used in clean energy technologies.

This multi-institution EFRC, known as the Center for Understanding & Controlling Accelerated and Gradual Evolution of Materials for Energy (UNCAGE-ME), has advanced understanding of how acid gases interact with energy-related materials since its inception in 2014. The Center, with Georgia Tech as the lead participating institution, was first renewed for four years of funding in 2018.

“The selection for a third phase of funding is unusual, and speaks to the impact of the research already reported by the center in its first two phases,” said Christopher Jones, the John F. Brock III School Chair in Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering. “I believe this is attributable to the strong leadership provided by our current and former directors, Ryan Lively and Krista Walton. An additional constant throughout all three phases of the center has been strong collaboration between Georgia Tech, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Lehigh University, and the University of Alabama.”   

In the next four-year phase, UNCAGE-ME will leverage capabilities developed over the last eight years to address basic science questions associated with the evolution of materials to be used in clean energy technologies, including systems designed to capture and convert CO2 from the air into useful chemicals.

“Two of the most basic commodity chemicals in the clean energy economy will be H2 and CO2. A special emphasis has been given to these two molecules with DOE’s Energy Earthshots that were announced in November 2021 – the Hydrogen Shot and the Carbon Negative Shot” said Ryan Lively, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and the director of UNCAGE-ME.

“These are all-hands-on-deck calls for innovations in technologies and approaches that will reduce the cost of clean hydrogen by 80% to $1 per 1 kg in one decade and remove CO2 from the atmosphere and durably store it at meaningful scales for less than $100/net metric ton of CO2-equivalent,” said Krista Walton, professor in ChBE as well as the inaugural director of UNCAGE-ME.

To help reach these goals, UNCAGE-ME will employ an interdisciplinary, matrixed research structure that combines novel materials synthesis, in situ characterization techniques, molecular modeling, and data science approaches to achieve an unprecedented level of design, prediction, and control over (electro)catalysts, sorbents, and membranes.

From 2014 to 2022, the UNCAGE-ME’s research accomplishments (appearing in more than 200 publications) provided detailed descriptions of the impact of acid gas exposure on metal-oxides, metal-organic frameworks, carbons, supported amines, porous organic cages, and other materials. This fundamental knowledge base directly supports the mission of the DOE’s Basic Energy Sciences program to provide the foundational science to guide the development of new energy technologies under realistic process environments.

“The College of Engineering is proud to continue leading this important initiative for an additional four years,” said Raheem Beyah, dean of the College of Engineering and Southern Company Chair. “This second renewal from DOE is a testament to Krista and Ryan’s leadership, as well as the vision and innovation of a science team comprised of Georgia Tech researchers and our collaborators around the nation.”

In addition to Georgia Tech, the partner institutions for UNCAGE-ME include Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of Alabama, University of Florida, University of California Riverside, Lehigh University, Sandia National Laboratory, and the University of Michigan.

Julia Kubanek, professor and vice president for interdisciplinary research at Georgia tech, said it takes partnership across the Institute to support faculty in developing complex centers such as UNCAGE-ME.

“Research centers like this one benefit from collaborations among faculty experts and grants administrator staff in our schools and colleges, contracting officials in Research Administration, plus two other sets of critical partners: the Office of Research Development, which supports complex proposal preparation, and the interdisciplinary research institutes IRIs,” Kubanek said.

“The IRIs gather information from our Office of Federal Relations and host workshops to help faculty prepare and form teams. In this case, the Strategic Energy Institute, Institute for Materials, and Renewable Bioproducts Institute were all involved in ensuring that faculty had advance notice of this competition and could make the most of expert advice,” she said.