January 23, 2024

Varanasi Sai Subhankar, an aerospace engineering Ph.D. student advised by faculty member Thomas Underwood, was presented with the Green Engineering Best Student Paper Award at the 2024 AIAA SciTech Forum and Exposition. Subhankar was awarded for his paper titled “Breaking Catalytic Scaling Constraints using Plasma-Enabled Catalysis of Methane for Decarbonized Hydrogen Production," which provides an innovative approach that could be used in the production, storage and transportation of hydrogen fuel.

Paper Overview
photo of methane plasma
Photo of the reactor Subhankar used in his experiments. The blue glowing region is methane plasma (Dielectric Barrier Discharge (DBD) plasma).

Conventional methods for producing hydrogen from methane involve high temperatures and pressures, requiring significant investments and centralized facilities. Unfortunately, these processes often lead to carbon buildup on catalysts, reducing their effectiveness. This study introduces a promising alternative – a plasma-catalytic process that not only eliminates carbon emissions but also enables the direct conversion of methane into hydrogen and other valuable hydrocarbons at room temperature and pressure. Using electrical energy (low-temperature plasmas), we demonstrate how carefully designed catalysts, in conjunction with the vibrations of methane molecules, can overcome limitations and improve efficiency. Integrating microkinetic models with experiments shows an 80% increase in hydrogen production rates compared to plasma alone. This innovative approach can influence rethinking the production, storage, and transportation of hydrogen fuel.

“My research has helped me to learn a lot of skills and have extensive hands-on experience,” said Subhankar. “I like the thrill and excitement I get by overcoming the challenges in my research.”

Once he completes his Ph.D., Subhankar says he plans to work in a research and development position in the energy industry.