Meet Elliott Roth

Postdoc participant's research studies ways to make commercial power plants greener

The amount of carbon dioxide emitted annually in the U.S. is increasing steadily, a concern that fuels political and economic debates as the country struggles with growing demand.

The EPA has responded by setting a target of a 30 percent carbon dioxide emission reduction by 2030—mainly from commercial power plants—a goal that requires the help of scientists like Elliott Roth at the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) to realize.

"My research will help ensure that the price of electricity for power produced from fossil fuels does not increase greatly," said Roth, who has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from West Virginia University.

In the event of a federally mandated carbon tax, companies that emitted less carbon would pay less in taxes, producing cheaper electricity reflected in lower consumer bills.

Roth is studying carbon capture in the Postgraduate Research Program offered through the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education and managed by ORAU. The program aims to cultivate advanced research skills in recent graduates of master's and doctoral programs.

Roth interacts daily with his mentor, Dr. Evan Granite in the Functional Materials Development Division, to develop materials and methods that could potentially reduce the cost of carbon dioxide capture and sequestration, a process that prevents the greenhouse gas's release into the atmosphere. As part of the Carbon Capture Research and Development Program, he researches solvents, membranes, and solid adsorbents for carbon dioxide capture and oxygen separation.

Certain solvents, such as monoethanolamine - also used in a variety of personal care products and wood treatment, are used to "scrub" or absorb the carbon dioxide from the flue gas of power plants. Membranes, on the other hand, are mechanisms that essentially sieve out carbon dioxide from the flue gas.

Both technologies are cost and resource-prohibitive. Solvents are used currently in a variety of industrial applications, but have not been implemented on coal-based power plants, the main source of carbon dioxide pollution. That's because boiling the solvent solution to reuse it, for example, requires massive amounts of energy—approximately one-third of a coal-fired power plant's steam and power to operate. There are no commercially available membranes for carbon dioxide capture from coal-fired power plants.

"The research we're doing at NETL is cutting edge because our team synthesizes materials that have never been made before," said Roth. "Specifically, ionic liquids are a fairly new material for carbon dioxide capture. While they have great potential to perform better than other solvents, they also have difficulties that need to be studied and researched."

Roth will be in the program for at least two years and then envisions obtaining a permanent position in energy research or chemical engineering. He knows his experience at NETL will be launching ground for future employment and encourages others to participate in the program, as well.

"I have greatly enjoyed my experience at NETL," he said. "If the research that is conducted here fascinates someone, then I would encourage them to think about participating. This is an excellent program for people interested in energy and how government research is conducted."