SOFI Demo Project: Alex Grant

SOFI Demo Project: Alex Grant

The SOFI Demo Project is moving forward!

As you read in February, we are starting work on Phase 1 of the SOFI Demo Project. Justin Notestein and his graduate student Alex Grant are spearheading the CO2 to methanol reactor development.

We wanted to take a moment to introduce you to Alex Grant. He will be sending periodic updates as things progress this spring and summer.


What events/people motivated you to pursue an engineering degree?

I always loved science, and I originally started out in Physics, and I wanted to do an honors degree in physics and chemistry, and also take on a philosophy minor. One day a friend’s mom asked sarcastically “what are you going to do with that?” and I had no idea how to answer the question. Concurrently, I was taking an advanced calculus course, and I was getting really tired of hyper theoretical topics. I started considering engineering, and chemical engineering seemed like the best reconciliation of my interests. I still did the minor in philosophy too!


How long have you been involved in the solar fuels field?

This is my first time in solar fuels actually. I have done research in electrochemistry, with nanoparticles, and with photocatalysis, but never the kind of heterogeneous catalysis or process engineering work that I will get to do here at Northwestern. I got bit by the solar fuels bug while working in Mexico City last summer, first by wild dreams of the hydrogen economy, and eventually settling on making methanol.


How did you discover SOFI?

At McGill, my undergrad institution, I was very involved with an organization called TISED (Trottier Institute for Sustainability in Engineering and Design), and working with the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) in my PhD was a natural new relationship. When I was searching for a lab to join in September 2105, I met with Michael Wasielewski in Northwestern’s Chemistry department. It turns out Wasielewski’s work has absolutely no chemical engineering component to it, so I wasn’t a good fit there. But he told me about Dick Co, and suggested that SOFI may be a good fit. It turns out that Dick and Justin Notestein in the McCormick School of Engineering had already been chatting about a collaborative project but hadn’t starting working on anything specific.

The SOFI Demo Project is very interesting to me because I want to work on new technology that can change the world.


What is the biggest hurdle you anticipate Phase 1 of the Demo Project will face?

Reactor design. It is not easy to build a world-class high pressure reactor to do catalysis research or to make methanol for the demo unit, particularly because safety is so crucial. Operating at 10-30 bar means that we need to be very careful. I am going to enjoy building it though – it’s like a big Lego project.


What do you think is the most exciting aspect of solar fuels research today?

I think solar fuels are an exciting technological value proposition for energy storage because we don’t need to worry (as much) about the degradation of the instruments that convert the energy like we do with batteries. I think lithium ion and other chemistry batters are going to be crucial for implementation in the next 1-5 years, but I think in the long term, storing energy in chemical bonds is the best idea for large scale energy storage.

In research today, I am inspired by people like Peidong Yang at Berkeley who is working on really quite crazy beautiful systems to store energy in chemical bonds. We will soon be part of this discussion at Northwestern with our demo unit, because the world needs to see a fully integrated system for solar fuel production to know that Peidong Yang’s beautiful science will be able to make an impact on the world.



  1. To obtain any type of reasonable efficiency, a system that converts carbon dioxide to methanol would require three reactors, not one. The overall reaction would require a transfer of six electrons. This is far too unlikely to happen in one step. It would be better to build 1 reactor to hydrogenate carbon dioxide to formic acid, a second reactor to reduce formic acid to formaldehyde, and a third reactor to hydrogenate formaldehyde to methanol. Each reactor would have its own inorganic heterogeneous (in 2 of the reactions photo-) catalyst uniquely designed to stabilize the requisite transition state for its reaction. A separate water-splitting reaction also using solar fuels technology would provide the hydrogen for this process. There should be government funding for this because it will save the world!

    • From the perspective of homogeneous catalysis I can see why you would suggest a battery of transformations, but heterogeneous catalysts are already able to do this (the Cu/ZnO/Al2O3 system). It also depends on what you mean by “efficiency” (material, energy?). There is also no explicit reason why photocatalysis is beneficial here…


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