Fueling a Carbon-Neutral Society

Each day in VMI’s chemistry labs, Maj. Dan Harrison ’05 quietly does his part to help create a carbon-neutral society. He ramped up that effort over the summer with the help of cadet researchers and new equipment.

Harrison, who’s been teaching at VMI since 2013, focuses his research around developing catalysts that could work to reduce carbon dioxide into a more reactive carbon species and then into a usable fuel that could someday supplement or replace fossil fuels and the global warming they create.

The work involves trying to replicate a natural means of producing energy: photosynthesis. Just as plants take in water and carbon dioxide to make oxygen, Harrison and other scientists working in the field of renewable energy want to develop a process whereby carbon dioxide is broken down into a clean-burning combustible fuel.

Dan Harrison speaks about the new new Nuclear Resonance Spectrometer and how it is opening new avenues of research.

It’s a process that requires much trial and error. Because carbon dioxide is a very stable molecule, breaking it down requires energy in the form of a catalyst. Typically, Harrison and the cadets who’ve been assisting him in the research use one of the transition metals from the middle of the periodic table – a group that includes manganese, chromium, iron, cobalt, and nickel – as a catalyst.

A love of fireworks and bright colors drove Harrison’s early interest in chemistry. After graduating from VMI, Harrison earned his doctorate in chemistry at the University of Virginia and then deepened his interest in renewable fuels while completing a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“From a very early age, I’ve been interested in ways to reduce [carbon dioxide] or convert it into something else,” Harrison said.

He’s particularly intrigued by the possibility of using a photosynthesis-like process to create a clean energy source. “Plants do [photosynthesis] naturally, and they’ve had a really long time to figure it out,” noted Harrison. “We don’t. We have 50 years or so to solve this problem of allowing us to consume a lot of energy but not produce a lot of waste.”

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