A team of West Virginia University researchers will try to make green energy materials even greener by using naturally occurring nanometer-level structures that already exist in plant matter to develop a more efficient and lower cost solution that remains environmentally friendly.

The team, led by Jingxin Wang, professor of wood science and technology in WVU’s Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, will explore the production of highly ordered mesoporous carbon (HOMC) from plants like the hybrid willow, eastern white pine and some grasses.

Wang explained that HOMC materials contain orderly arranged pores or voids that are in nanometer sizes and can be used for hydrogen storage in fuel cells, for energy storage in lithium batteries and supercapacitors. They can also be used for absorption of toxic substances for environmental remediation, in catalysis and absorption of large volumes of gases or liquids, and in various other industrial processes.

Although there are numerous uses for HOMC materials, current technologies used to produce them face high production costs due to limited availability of raw materials.

“The development of a scalable and environmentally friendly technology that uses plant biomass to produce cost-competitive HOMC is the key to expanding the use of this enhanced carbon material,” Wang said.

With the support of a $496,168 grant from the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Nanotechnology for Agriculture and Food Systems award, the team will develop a new technology to convert the plant matter into the desirable nanostructures.

Their intention is to develop a process that generates the kind of HOMC materials that offer more efficient energy storage and transport. Using biomaterials as a source would also limit the use of chemicals in the production process.

Wang also said that the focus on plant-based, renewable resources adds value to West Virginia’s substantial forest resources.

“Raw materials will be the abundant biomass in the region, such as wood residues and low-quality hardwoods that don’t have high-value commercial applications,” he explained.

Led by Wang, the team also includes two scholars from the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, John Zondlo, professor of chemical engineering, and Edward Sabolsky, associate professor of mechanical engineering, along with two of Wang’s colleagues from the wood science and technology program, assistant professor David DeVallance and post-doctoral fellow Xinfeng Xie.