One of the great challenges of our time is to make energy consumption carbon neutral. While alternative energy technologies such as solar and wind have come a long way, they still lag behind fossil fuels when it comes to energy density, the amount of energy stored per unit volume.
“It’s difficult to imagine a sustainable energy future in which fossil fuels play no role,” says Lynden A. Archer, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. “For all of their reported shortcomings, these fuels have incredibly high energy density, which has brought about associated lifestyle conveniences that will be difficult to part with, without compromising quality of life. Among the many technological challenges that this poses is to create systems that convert carbon dioxide emissions to valuable products that can compete in the marketplace.”
An Electrochemical Discovery to Change the World
Archer and graduate student Wajdi Al Sadat, PhD’17 Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, decided to tackle this challenge from the view point that all chemistry is really electrochemistry and that difficult chemical transformations, which traditionally depend on high-temperature or catalytic intervention, can be achieved instead through electrochemical inducement. “I thought that if we were able to design an electrochemical cell that uses carbon dioxide emissions as a feedstock and induce its reduction to produce C2 [molecule with two carbon atoms] molecules by species generated in the cell, that would be a good first step toward this goal,” Archer explains.
The researchers quickly had success. They discovered that an electrochemical cell with an anode of metal, in this case aluminum, and a cathode made of a mixture of carbon dioxide and oxygen causes a chemical reaction between the aluminum and the oxygen—generating electricity and forming a superoxide intermediate. The superoxide reacts with the carbon dioxide in the cathode, creating a byproduct, aluminum oxalate, used by the pharmaceutical and fiber industries, among others.
“Our results were initially surprising because, in addition to generating aluminum oxalate, the cell also produced relatively large amounts of electricity.”
“Our results were initially surprising because, in addition to generating aluminum oxalate, the cell also produced relatively large amounts of electricity,” Archer says. He and Al Sadat reported their findings in the journal Science Advances in the summer of 2017. In October of that year, Scientific American magazine caught on to the importance of the discovery and listed it as one of their top 10 ideas that will change the world.
NOHMs, a Composite Material with Many Faces
Archer is no stranger to innovation. He and his research group are known for discoveries in the area of nanoparticle-polymer hybrid electrolyte materials and their use in advanced batteries. In the early 2000s, the Archer Group created a composite material in which ion conductive oligomers (small polymers) or ionic liquids (salts that exist in liquid form at room temperature) are covalently tethered to inorganic nanoparticles. The materials, termed Nanoscale Organic Hybrid Materials (NOHMs), combine the best properties of three successful materials classes—organic polymers, ionic liquids, and ceramics. Depending on the specific polymer, ionic liquid, and nanoparticle core chemistry used, NOHMs can appear to be anything from a gel-like liquid to a stiff waxy substance. When the polymer is ionic, the particles make an effective electrolyte for batteries—one much less flammable, and thus safer, than traditional electrolytes.
“My group started with the idea of using the materials to interrogate nanoscale motions in liquids tethered to rigid, immobile substrates,” Archer says. “We much later discovered that when added to conventional battery electrolytes in small quantities, versions of the materials lead to reduced or non-flammable batteries, while other versions enabled safe operation of conventional battery electrolytes at higher electrode potentials.”
NOHMs Technologies Inc.
In 2011, Archer and his wife, Shivaun D. Archer, Biomedical Engineering—cofounded a technology company called NOHMs Technologies Inc. based on NOHMs research licensed from the Cornell Technology Center. At a pre-seed workshop offered by the New York State-funded Center for Advance Technology, Archer pitched the company to an audience of interested business investors and others. Afterwards, he was approached by Nathan Ball, who would later become the chief executive officer of NOHMS Technologies. Approximately one year later, Surya Moganty, a postdoctorate in Archer’s lab and the main researcher responsible for inventing the ionic liquid variety of NOHMs, joined that team and now serves as chief technical officer.
Today NOHMs Technologies is a successful company based in Rochester, NY, developing several electrolyte products for the consumer electronics and automotive markets based on its trademark nanolyte family of electrolytes.