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Luca Mastropasqua
February 27, 2023

Focus on new faculty: Luca Mastropasqua eyes electrochemical devices to advance decarbonization

Written By: Adam Malecek


Industrial production of steel, cement and plastics emits a significant amount of carbon into the atmosphere.

While viable options at scale for decarbonizing such industries don’t yet exist, Luca Mastropasqua is leveraging his expertise in electrochemical systems to develop more sustainable solutions for industry sectors that are difficult to decarbonize.

“The production of many industrial commodities, such as steel, cement, plastics and chemicals, require molecules as feedstock, which are currently produced almost exclusively using fossil fuels,” says Mastropasqua, who joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison as an assistant professor in mechanical engineering in January 2023 and directs the Hydrogen and Electrochemical Research for Decarbonization (HERD) Lab. “Electrochemical systems are important for decarbonizing our economy because they offer a way to produce these molecules using renewable energy sources, which would make manufacturing processes more sustainable.”

The electrochemical systems Mastropasqua studies include fuel cells and electrolyzers. Fuel cells convert a fuel into electricity. Conversely, electrolyzers are devices that convert electricity into a fuel.

For example, an electrolyzer can use electricity, which is generated from renewable sources such as solar and wind, to break water into hydrogen and oxygen. “Studying electrolyzers is one of the biggest parts of my research, because there’s a big push today for producing renewable fuels, including hydrogen and hydrogen derivatives such as renewable synthetic hydrocarbons, ammonia and methanol,” he says. “For example, the maritime sector is very interested in using ammonia as a fuel to decarbonize ships, and low-carbon ammonia also has applications in the fertilizer and chemical industries.”

Mastropasqua’s research involves both experiments and computational tools. He develops new electrochemical devices and tests them in the lab to uncover ways to reduce their lifetime cost. And, with a background in system-level analysis, he uses simulations to study how the devices can be integrated into energy conversion and industrial processes.

Mastropasqua received a bachelor’s degree in energy engineering and a master’s degree in power generation engineering from Politecnico di Milano in Italy, as well as a master’s degree in thermal power from Cranfield University in the United Kingdom. After earning his PhD in energy and nuclear science and technology from Politecnico di Milano, he was a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University and then took a position as a senior researcher at University of California, Irvine, in the National Fuel Cell Research Center.

At UC-Irvine, he began work as a co-principal investigator on a U.S. Department of Energy HySteel project; the research team aims to use an electrolyzer to produce renewable hydrogen that can be used to convert raw iron ore into iron. This process only produces water as a byproduct and can completely remove carbon dioxide emissions from the ironmaking process. He is continuing to work on the HySteel project at UW-Madison in collaboration with colleagues at UC-Irvine.

Mastropasqua is also working with industry partners to study ammonia production and develop liquid hydrogen refueling stations for heavy duty transportation, such as busses, trucks and ships.

In the future, he hopes to tackle other difficult-to-decarbonize sectors, such as cement production and aviation, by capturing carbon dioxide and converting it using renewable energy-powered electrochemical processes to produce synthetic jet fuels, as well as storing carbon dioxide in more permanent industrial products.

Featured image caption: Luca Mastropasqua. Credit: Joel Hallberg.