Researchers Awarded $1,999,996 to Develop a Transformational Technology to Reduce Carbon Emissions from Coal-Burning Power Plants


Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS) and its partners have landed a three-year, $2 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) to develop an innovative, low-cost approach for carbon dioxide (CO2) capture from burning coal during electrical generation.

Capturing CO2 from coal-fired power plants is difficult—state-of-the-art carbon capture technologies are highly energy intensive and nearly double the cost of generating electricity. Hence, the DOE has set a goal of developing a technology that can remove 90% of the CO2 released from coal combustion for a 30% lower cost of electricity than the current benchmark approaches—in short, to deliver very high energy efficiency and at the same time significantly reduce the cost of capturing emissions of CO2, a heat-trapping gas known to contribute substantially to global warming. Despite the many research efforts made to reach this goal to date, the improvements in energy use and cost savings have been largely incremental. 

Now researchers from the ISGS are taking a potentially transformational approach. They have proposed using a biphasic CO2 absorption process that involves multiple stages of liquid–liquid solvent phase separation for postcombustion CO2 capture, an approach that could dramatically improve energy efficiency, lower the equipment cost and footprint, and maintain operational simplicity. “Transformational solutions are critical in making a game-changing advance to significantly cut costs and improve energy performance for CO2 capture,” said Yongqi Lu, principal investigator of the project.

The collaborative project includes the ISGS within the Prairie Research Institute (PRI) at the University of Illinois (Yongqi Lu, chemical/environmental engineer at the Applied Research Laboratory of the ISGS), the Illinois Sustainability Technology Center (ISTC), also at the PRI (Kevin O’Brien, director, and Wei Zheng, senior research chemist), and the Applied Research Institute (Santanu Chaudhuri, principal research scientist) at the University of Illinois, as well as the Trimeric Corporation of Buda, Texas, as an external partner. The ISGS, ISTC, and PRI have also committed $500,000 in cost share support to the project. 

“Reducing carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion, especially coal combustion, has become a major factor in the environmental planning of the power sector, and proposed regulations could severely impact fossil-driven power production. Postcombustion CO2 capture from power plants is critical for reducing CO2 emissions and meeting these proposed regulations,” said Lu. “This award will help demonstrate an innovative concept and create engineering data for scaling up the technology to the next stage.”

The team is pursuing reduced-carbon methods of generating electricity because the U.S. still has a major electricity generation capacity from burning coal. Illinois, in particular, has the largest reserves of bituminous coal in the nation. “Without advances in technology, increasing capital costs of using other fuels will mean much higher energy costs at home and at work,” said O’Brien.

This novel process applies a new type of solvent developed at the Applied Research Laboratory that allows two liquid solvent phases to form and develop during CO2 absorption: the absorbed CO2 is enriched in one phase while the other phase remains lean and uses only the CO2-enriched phase for solvent regeneration under high pressure.

The collaborative project will begin with biphasic solvent development, characterization, and performance studies on the Urbana-Champaign campus. The ISGS will focus on solvent screening and process development, the ISTC will lead a solvent stability and corrosivity assessment, and the Applied Research Institute will direct a molecular dynamics simulation study to guide solvent screening. Trimeric Corporation will then conduct a process simulation and techno-economic analysis of the process. The overall goal of the project is to demonstrate the technical advantages of this novel process at a laboratory scale, and within three years, to generate the data needed to advance the technology to the bench- or small pilot-scale demonstration level.

The award announcement and descriptions of other funded projects aimed at meeting the DOE’s new carbon capture goals are available at

Contacts: Yongqi Lu (ISGS),, 217-244-4985; Jim Dexter (ISTC), Communications Coordinator,, 217-244-3290; Santanu Chaudhuri (ARI),, 217-300-9419.