Published in Las Cruces Bulletin 10.14.22
By C.T. Barnes
Las Cruces Utilities (LCU) was a proud co-sponsor of the 32nd WERC Environmental Design Contest organized by the College of Engineering at New Mexico State University (NMSU). This year was the first time in 3 years that the event was held in person due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. The turnout showed the excitement of teams coming together with 21 teams from 9 universities totaling 161 participants. Even more encouraging this year is that 50% of participants were females.
“Statistically one third of all STEM graduates and students are female showing how incredible a turn out of 50% of participants being female is,” WERC Environmental Design Contest Program Manager Dr. Ginger Scarbrough stated.
The WERC Contest offers six engineering challenges in total. “We design this as a workforce development opportunity, keeping in mind what industry engineering firms ask for when putting out their request for proposals,” Scarbrough pointed out. Task 2 this year was sponsored by LCU and El Paso Electric Co. and focused on Carbon Conversion for the Energy Transition. The main challenge was to find a way to repurpose the CO2 that is captured after burning natural gas at a power plant.
The teams were judged on the quality of their written reports and presentations, how well their bench-scale models perform, and whether their plan for commercialization is viable. LCU was able to send Interim Utilities Director Adrienne Widmer and Utilities Deputy Director Natural Gas and Energy Lucio Garcia to serve as two of the judges this year.
“This was my first year participating in the contest as a judge and I was impressed and awed by the students and their unique designs,” LCU Interim Utilities Director Adrienne L. Widmer, P. E. stated. “This was a rewarding experience for me to assist NMSU WERC and I look forward to participating in the future,” Widmer concluded.
Louisiana State University converted CO2 into formic acid, a component used in fuel cells, which is a growing strategy for generating clean energy. Formic acid currently sells for $0.50/ lb., and their economic analysis showed that selling the formic acid will just offset the cost of eliminating the CO2 from a power plant. They received second place for Task 2 and walked away with a $1,000 cash reward for their efforts.
The first-place winner was the University of Idaho. This team converted CO2 into two commercially useful chemicals: one is used as a catalyst in pharmaceuticals with a market value of $9/lb. and the other, used for fabric dying, has a current market value of $0.73/lb. They predict the return on investment for the pharmaceutical catalyst to be 1160% over 10 years of production. The potential success of their process prompted them to file for a patent. The team was awarded the first-place prize of $2,500 for the quality of their research and potential for producing a marketable product.
This year’s contest showed great innovation in the industry, growth in diversity, and excitement for collaboration and teamwork with industry professionals. Everyone is eager to start their research for next year's WERC contest.
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PHOTO 1: NMSU WERC teams working on their bench scale projects- Courtesy of NMSU.