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David J. Heldebrant, PhD

Chief scientist and team leader, separations materials

David J. Heldebrant, PhD

Chief scientist and team leader, separations materials


Trapping carbon dioxide produced by coal and natural gas power plants is one way to keep it from warming the earth. But technologies that do this have yet to find commercial success—they require too much energy, and their end product, carbon dioxide, isn't valuable enough to recoup the costs. Organic chemist David Heldebrant has been exploring organic chemicals that can sponge carbon dioxide from exhaust gas and then be squeezed to release it. Recently, Heldebrant showed that these so-called CO2BOLS (pronounced co'-balls) beat energy consumption standards set by the U.S. Department of Energy by about 20 percent. He also leads a project that recycles the still-captured carbon dioxide into methanol, giving off water as a byproduct.

"We're trying to make renewable methanol for the state of California as a part of their renewable fuel standards," Heldebrant said. "We're basically combining two chemical processes together. It's more energy-efficient and substantially more cost-effective."

Heldebrant hopes to continue to revamp how the industry can use captured carbon too. Chemists have worked out how to convert carbon dioxide into useful products by using industrial catalysts or bacteria, but the number of options is limited. So Heldebrant is exploring other ways to coax carbon dioxide into products beyond what is available now, opening the doors for broader use of the waste gas.

He also, somewhat unexpectedly, discovered a spongy material that takes on water at low humidity and expels it at high.

Heldebrant received the Ronald L. Brodzinski Early Career Exceptional Achievement Award for his work on understanding of gas purification for clean energy technologies. He is a Research Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering at Washington State University and served as division chair for the 2019 ACS Energy & Fuels division.

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Watch David Heldebrant talk about removing carbon dioxide to make clean fossil energy (3:21)