Transcending Limits: Ozin Group postdoctoral fellow featured in Behind the Paper at Nature Energy

June 3, 2024 by Alyx Dellamonica

Headshots of a young Asian woman in a black jacket and an older white man in a colourful shirt.
Postdoctoral Fellow Rui Song and Professor Geoffrey Ozin (supplied images)

Paper Title & Link: Ethylene production via photocatalytic dehydrogenation of ethane using LaMn1-xCuxO3

Authors: Rui Song, Guanshu Zhao, Juan Manuel Restrepo-Florez, Camilo J. Viasus, Zhijie Chen, Chaoqian, Andrew Wang, Dengwei Jing, Athanasios A. Tountas, Jiuli Guo, Chengliang Mao, Chaoran Li, Jiahui Shen, Guangming Cai, Chenyue Qiu, Jessica Ye, Yubin Fu, Chistos T. Maravelias, Lu Wang, Junchuan Sun, Yang-Fan Xu, Zhao Li, Joel Yi Yang Loh, Nhat Truong Nguyen, Le He, Xiaohong Zhang & Geoffrey A. Ozin.

U of T postdoctoral fellow Rui Song is celebrating publication of a major article in Nature Energy

Song, a postdoctoral fellow working with Professor Geoff Ozin, is one of the lead authors of the article “Ethylene production via photocatalytic dehydrogenation of ethane using LaMn1-xCuxO3,” appearing in Nature Energy this month.  

Industrial-scale ethylene production is facilitated by fossil-powered steam cracking of ethane. This is a high-temperature, high-energy process that uses natural gas liquids as source material or feedstock. 

According to Song, the Ozin Group’s work presents an alternative pathway for selective conversion of ethane to ethylene—a process driven solely by sunlight.  The solar-driven catalytic process offers an environmentally friendly route for ethylene and hydrogen production, using renewable energy for power and circumventing the need for fossil fuel-based feedstocks.  

The result, if scaled up, could be a significant reduction in the carbon footprint associated with producing ethylene.  

The world's most widely used organic compound, ethelene is used in production of polymers and industrial chemicals as well as for agricultural processes like controlled ripening of fruit. It is an important component of detergents, antifreeze, welding gas, commercial refrigerants and other important products. 

In addition to the article itself, Song was invited to contribute a prestigious Behind the Paper blog post to Nature Portfolio and Springer Nature Communities. Behind the Paper offers opportunities for researchers to widen discussion of their work by sharing the stories of their research journeys—the moments of inspiration as well as any setbacks encountered along the way. In her piece, Song reveals that to demonstrate the practical viability and scalability of the solar-driven ethane-to-ethylene/hydrogen process, the team built a prototype reactor and installed it on a campus rooftop for testing.  

“Its successful operation illustrates the potential utilization of solar energy in our system for ethylene and hydrogen production,” she writes. 

Concerns with solar-powered production facilities center around intermittency and cloud fluctuations in solar light intensity, Song explains, and so comprehensive techno-economic analysis was conducted to evaluate the energy and economic potential of an industrial-scale, continuous 24/7 process powered by light-emitting diodes (LEDs).  

“The techno-economic evaluation highlights the potential for this sustainable, solar-driven approach to be implemented on an industrial scale, offering an energy and carbon efficient and economically viable alternative to conventional fossil fuel-based ethylene production methods.” 

Professor Ozin’s group has a long track record in developing energy efficient, cost-effective, and scalable photocatalyst and photoreactor engineering solutions towards using CO2 as a feedstock for the production of commodity chemicals and fuels. 

"The advance described in the Nature Energy paper that elaborates how sunlight and light emitting diodes can enable the 24/7 selective dehydrogenation of ethane to readily separable ethylene and hydrogen,” he says, “opening a Pandora's box of new and exciting opportunities for the photo reforming of hydrogen rich small molecule carriers, such as methane, ammonia, water and waste polymers, for the safe transportation, storage, and production of green hydrogen for a sustainable energy future."   

The techno-economic evaluation highlights the potential for this sustainable, solar-driven approach to be implemented on an industrial scale.
--Dr. Rui Song



The solar fuels group deeply appreciates the financial support of their research by Hydrofuel Canada Incorporated.