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Dr. David Mebane

Dr. David Mebane

Dr. David Mebane

Today, U.S. coal-fired power plants generate nearly half of the nation’s electricity and contribute more than a third of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. As some scientists turn to solar and wind energy to combat the rise in harmful greenhouse gases, West Virginia University assistant professor Dr. David Mebane looks to improve current energy technologies to mitigate these harmful fossil fuel emissions.

Located in the state renowned for coal mining and production, Mebane participated as a research associate in the National Energy and Technology Laboratory (NETL) Postgraduate Research Program. The NETL research appointments are administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education and allow academic community members to apply their established skill sets to energy-related issues.

Mebane, who obtained his doctorate in materials science at the Georgia Institute of Technology, saw the program as a chance to answer questions related to energy independence and the shift toward cleaner and more efficient forms of fossil energy with an ultimate goal to help reduce the economic impact of climate change.

At NETL, Mebane participated in the Department of Energy’s Carbon Capture Simulation Initiative (CCSI) to “develop state-of-the-art computational modeling and simulation tools to accelerate commercialization of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies,” said Mebane.

CCSI aims to develop computational tools, which will accelerate the development of cost-effective CCS technology.

“We are on our way to demonstrating how we accurately can predict how power plants with carbon capture technology behave with less expense and time than has been expended in the past,” he said.

His role was to develop easy-to-implement computational models for the highly complex chemical reactions required to simulate carbon dioxide separation on an industrial scale. These models can be used by industry to help develop full-scale carbon capture systems.

Mebane spent his days reading literature and building codes and models from the information and insight gathered from that literature.

“The code I write is dedicated primarily to describing how a carbon dioxide sorbent behaves as its environment—gas composition and temperature—changes,” he said. “The codes calculate how much carbon dioxide and water the sorbent will take up or give off as a function of this changing environment.”

The sorbent—a material that absorbs liquids or gases—is an amine polymer. Mebane explained how an amine is an organic compound that tends to absorb carbon dioxide at low temperatures, like those of flue gas, and release them at high temperatures. Once the carbon dioxide from the flue gas is adsorbed onto the sorbent, the sorbent is brought into a high-temperature environment. This is critical for separation of carbon dioxide out of the flue gas.

“The high temperatures tend to desorb the carbon dioxide from the sorbent into the pure carbon dioxide stream, which is then compressed for sequestration,” he said. “Then, the empty sorbent is put back into the flue gas, and the cycle starts over again.”

Through this research at NETL, Mebane gained knowledge in statistics, process modeling and chemistry. He also enjoyed close interdisciplinary collaboration with a network of statisticians, computational fluid dynamics specialists and chemical process modelers in addition to other scientists and researchers across various institutions.

“I have had a great experience at NETL,” he said. “Developing new statistical methods for multi-scale modeling was my biggest success, and I look forward to seeing where these research techniques can be applied next.”

Mebane said his experience at NETL helped him most by exposing him to carbon-capture technology research, which he plans to continue for the rest of his career.