Skip to main content

Burns hotter, costs cheaper: WVU engineer selected for prestigious ARPA-E program

Man in a lab coat looks at a computer

Shanshan Hu, a postdoctoral scholar, performs a high temperature corrosion measurement of alloys. (Submitted Photo)

Download full-size

 A new engineering research project at West Virginia University has the potential to make a demonstrable impact on the efficiency of electricity generation in the United States, decreasing carbon emissions and lowering costs for consumers. 

Today, natural gas turbines are responsible for generating more than a third of the country’s electricity supply. A $700,000 award from the United States Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, known as ARPA-E, will allow researchers from the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources to develop a new method to burn the gases used at a higher temperature, which will result in a dramatic decrease of carbon dioxide emissions. 

The award will be used to develop a brand-new class of materials using advanced 3D printing techniques that can increase the current base metal temperature of gas turbine systems from 1100 degrees Celsius to 1300 degrees Celsius and increase operating temperatures from 1600 degrees Celsius to 1800 degrees Celsius. 

According to Xingbo Liu, interim associate dean for research and Statler Endowed Chair professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and principal investigator of the project, the new 3D printing technique will allow the use of refractory materials, a group of metallic elements that are highly resistant to heat and wear, to be used in place of traditional nickel-based alloys that are commonly used in the aviation and power generation industries. 

“According to ARPA-E’s analyses, such an increase of the operation temperature can lead to seven percent improvement in efficiency in the natural gas turbines used for electricity generation in the U.S.,” Liu said. “This represents a chance to save up to 15 to 16 quads of energy by 2050. A similar improvement in the turbines used for civilian aircraft represents another three to four quads of potential savings for U.S. air travel over the same time span.” 

Liu explained that refractory metals have a higher melting point than traditional materials used to build gas turbine systems. The introduction of the new set of materials allows the natural gas to be burned at higher temperatures to operate the system, which translates to improved efficiency of the system and a significant decrease in carbon dioxide emissions.

The resulting research will improve the efficiency of the energy generation sector by developing materials that increase producers’ efficiency and create positive economic benefits for industrial and public consumers nationwide.

“This project is a combination of recent advancements in manufacturing and materials science,” Li said. “It could lead to the potential for us to develop next generation materials to use for turbines, which translates to lower cost, higher efficiency, and lower pollution.”

ARPA-E is considered the “crown jewel” of the Department of Energy’s programs, as they fund the most innovative and disruptive research in the US.

During Phase 1, Liu’s research team will demonstrate proof of concept for alloy compositions, coatings and manufacturing processes through modeling and laboratory scale testing of basic properties. If successful, the team will be selected to receive additional funding for the development of selected alloy compositions and coatings, as well as the production of generic small-scale turbine blades to demonstrate manufacturability of designs.

The researchers will work in collaboration with the National Energy Technology Laboratory, Leidos, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Advance Manufacturing LLC to complete the 18-month Phase 1 project. 



CONTACT: Paige Nesbit
Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources

Call 1-855-WVU-NEWS for the latest West Virginia University news and information from WVUToday.

Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.