Meet Matthew Zeh

Undergraduate researcher helps NETL design technology to lower U.S. carbon footprint

If Matthew Zeh’s research at the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) is successful, America’s substantial carbon footprint could be reduced dramatically. He and others at NETL are taking a head-on approach to mitigate global warming by developing technologies that cut greenhouse gas emissions at their source.

Zeh is a participant in NETL’s Professional Internship Program administered by ORAU through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. The program introduces undergraduates and recent bachelors’ graduates to the challenges of energy research while giving them the opportunity to use state-of-the-art equipment and engage with world-class scientists.

Zeh, an undergraduate at West Virginia University in mechanical engineering and music education, sees the program as an opportunity to gain experience in the professional world and insight into a non-academic one.

“My favorite part of the program is interacting with real, working engineers who are engaged in real-life problems. It is exciting to research some of the world’s most difficult problems with some very intelligent, exceptional people,” he said.

At the lab, he is studying the mechanical and transport properties of hollow fiber membranes that make use of ionic liquids, or salts that become liquid at room temperature. Together, the membranes and ionic liquids can absorb manmade carbon dioxide emissions, which, according to an EPA report released in 2013, accounted for 84 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in 2011.

“Ionic liquids have been shown to have high carbon dioxide solubility,” he explained. “So we suspend them within the pores of hollow fiber membranes. These composite membranes are then placed into a large module—made up of several thousand membranes—used to capture carbon dioxide from coal combustion, coal gasification, and natural gas processing.”

He spends his days mainly in the lab fabricating individual hollow fiber modules and testing their mechanical durability.

“The purpose of my research is to capture 95 percent or more of carbon dioxide created by the power generation processes,” said Zeh. “If implemented, my research would lead to a safer and cleaner America. The average American would be confident in knowing their electric power usage is not drastically affecting the world’s climate.”

Zeh has interned at NETL every summer since 2011—involved with the same project he is now—and his current appointment will last until April 2014.

“This experience has helped me to more fully understand the role and responsibilities of a practicing, professional engineer. It has also aided me in learning more about the research process,” he said. “I have enjoyed tackling some truly difficult problems. The guidance of my mentor, Dr. David Hopkinson, and other engineers on-site has truly made this an unforgettable experience.”