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PPPL physicist receives ExxonMobil grant for plasma research

Physicist Egemen Kolemen, who holds positions at Princeton University and the U.S. Department of Energy's Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), is sharing a grant from ExxonMobil to research whether plasma could reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with oil wells. Plasma is partially ionized gas that has separated into electrons and atomic nuclei, and can be found on Earth as lightning, neon lights, and many other forms. Stars and 99 percent of the visible universe are made of plasma.

Kolemen is a staff research physicist at PPPL and an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton. He will work in partnership with Yiguang Ju, the Robert Porter Patterson Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton, as well as scientists at ExxonMobil. They will determine whether plasma might be used to jump-start chemical reactions that transform methane, the primary component of natural gas, into liquid methanol and other kinds of hydrocarbons that could be used both as transportation fuel and in processes that create other chemicals.

The grant, worth $110,000 a year for three years, has come after ExxonMobil officials pledged in 2015 to contribute $5 million over five years to Princeton E-ffiliates Partnership, a program administered by the Andlinger Center to facilitate collaborations between researchers on campus and in industry for finding sustainable energy and environmental solutions. This year, the grant is funding four other research initiatives that are investigating batteries, photovoltaic materials, Arctic sea ice, and the absorption of carbon dioxide by the world's oceans.

Kolemen's fuel conversion work parallels his investigation of fusion plasmas. His research into methods to control such plasmas involves building devices that scientists can use to manipulate plasma in real time, ensuring that the plasma is not destabilized by waves known as modes. He also studies ways to optimize divertors, components within fusion facilities called "tokamaks" that vent excess heat.

Methane is produced in huge quantities in oil-rich regions around the world. Since pipelines to transport it for processing are too expensive to build in some regions, the gas is either vented directly into the air or burned off in those regions in a process known as flaring.

The quantities involved are enormous. Each year, approximately 150 billion cubic meters — 5.3 trillion cubic feet — of natural gas is flared, according to a 2011 report of the Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership, operated by the World Bank. The total burned equals one fourth of the United States' annual natural gas consumption.

Converting methane into methanol would enable the liquid to be stored at the production site until trucks can come to carry it away. Kolemen and Ju believe that plasma might be a crucial component for such conversion. The plasma, which would be heated to around 9,700 degrees Celsius, could provide enough heat to start the chemical reaction that transforms methane into methanol.

"We need to curb the pace towards a warming planet and serve the world's growing energy needs," said Yueh-Lin (Lynn) Loo, director of the Andlinger Center. "This is an interesting win-win proposition that could do both: reduce the flaring of methane, which generates greenhouse gas emissions, while producing transportable fuels. If feasible, this technique could have an impact on the energy industry."

There is no guarantee, however, that it will be possible to develop such a technique. "This is a moon-shot kind of project," said Kolemen. "It's not clear that it's possible, but it's worth pursuing because of the many benefits associated with it."

Kolemen and Ju have different roles in the research. Ju will explore the chemical mechanisms that might be required, while Kolemen will develop measurement devices to monitor the state of the plasma. "Overall we want to see how plasma interacts with methane's chemical composition," Kolemen said.

Princeton is well suited for such research, he noted. "Princeton is unique: the presence of both strong plasma and engineering facilities allows for exploration and collaboration."

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

U.S. Department of Energy
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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