Featured innovator: Indira Jayaweera

A senior program manager whose curiosity captures carbon.

“…to make the world safer and healthier, you have to have an environment that allows you to breathe easily. This is my current focus at SRI; I am working on technology that captures man-made carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas from the atmosphere to give us a chance to breathe easily again” — Dr. Indira Jayaweera

Dr. Indira Jayaweera has spent her life working toward a cleaner, greener planet for all; conducting extensive research in membrane development for water purification, petroleum hydrocarbon recovery and the development of carbon dioxide (CO2) capture technologies.

A Senior Program Manager, in the InSys Division at SRI International, she has a BSc in Chemistry from the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka and a Ph.D., in chemical kinetics from Dalhousie University, Canada and was named SRI Fellow in 2017. Dr. Jayaweera’s deep knowledge of chemical reactions and chemical processes is driving innovations in the field of green technologies.

Dr. Jayaweera has been the driving force behind the Mixed Salt Process (MSP) that facilitates highly efficient carbon capture. The MSP technology was recently acquired as an exclusive license by Baker Hughes to scale up the process for wider industrial use.

A marriage made in SRI heaven

Dr. Jayaweera started at SRI International after completing her Ph.D. at Dalhousie, moving to California alongside her husband, Dr. Palitha Jayaweera, who had previously taken up a position at SRI as a Material Scientist. Together they have worked on many projects and she credits him with making her ideas come to life in a practical sense.

During her career at SRI, Dr. Jayaweera has been an integral part of SRI developments in chemistry and environmental science. Upon joining SRI, she quickly became involved in ongoing Department of Energy (DOE) projects as a postdoctoral fellow, working her way up generating new projects as she became more experienced.

“I’m a very curious creature by nature”, says Dr. Jayaweera. This curiosity was not lost on her boss at the time, the Director of the Chemistry Department at SRI, who put Jayaweera’s abilities to the test with a free reign to innovate. This freedom to experiment was important for Dr. Jayaweera who said, “that freedom helped me a lot; to do whatever my mind went to, any solid interest that I had. However, it wasn’t just fantasies, the projects always had practical applications.”

The drive to breathe easily

In 2004, Dr. Jayaweera became involved in carbon-dioxide capture using aqueous inorganic solvents which then lead to the development of the novel Mixed Salt Process (MSP). Originally an industry collaboration followed up with government funding, the project answered key questions about the industrialization of carbon capture. Questions such as “how much does it cost to capture a ton of CO2?”, “how much power does it require from the power plant to capture CO2?”, and “when implemented, how much would it decrease a company’s carbon or CO2 output?” all needed answers to reduce the capture cost. Jayaweera was able to create technology and experimental conditions to answer these questions and move the technology forward into the next generations of feasibility.

Hot off the heels of the success of the MSP is one of Jayaweera’s most important innovations, a pilot-scale technology demonstration of the CO2 capture is currently underway, with a facility being built in Illinois, USA. This is a government-funded project and one of SRI’s flagship deliverables. The project will take a flue gas stream from an operating power plant in Illinois and then demonstrate the use of SRI’s Mixed Salt Process (MSP) to capture emitted CO2.

The MSP differs from other CO2 capture projects in important ways. Instead of using organic compounds to capture CO2, the SRI project uses an inorganic salt mixture without producing any hazardous waste. This makes the SRI process inherently safer and is a step-up from other types of carbon capture. This improvement in safety, whilst ensuring efficiency of CO2 capture, is important to Dr. Jayaweera. “The point of my work is to not produce more waste. I don’t want to have a technology that captures carbon dioxide, but along the way produces more waste, that is even more hazardous, that you then have to deal with”, she says.

In the U.S., the goal is to reduce CO2 emissions by 50% below 2005 levels by 2030. This requires a big push across many areas of human activity. Being able to capture CO2 as it is produced at source will reduce the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, allowing the earth to breathe more easily. Carbon capture that is scalable to industrial levels, that works at source and that is effective, will work alongside other technologies, such as electric cars, to reduce the impact of humans on climate. Together, these technologies will make the world safer and healthier.

Processes of this kind are given a scoring value on a scale of 1 to 9 to show their market readiness or Technology Readiness Level (TRL). The TRL is defined by the European Union as part of the Horizon 2020 framework program. The TRL technology readiness level for MSP is currently at four to five. This current project will increase the TRL to close to six, setting it closer to market-ready. It demonstrates the scalability and capability of CSS technology outside of SRI.

The capture cost balancing act

Jayaweera and her team are actively working to increase the carbon capture efficiency to reduce the CO2 release from point sources (e.g., power plants, industry sources). The new goal is to try to improve the technology so that at least 95% of CO2 emissions are captured. The trick is in balancing the economic cost of the capture of CO2 and each type of carbon that the varying power stations emit from different streams.

Dr. Jayaweera says, “Since SRI started the carbon capture program in 2004, we have been preparing for this issue. Because of this foresight, we can help to solve it, and in doing so, receive funding for further technological advancements. Having the infrastructure already in place to take on new projects puts SRI in a great position. SRI has all the equipment and utilities to install and test any technology related to CO2 capture. This includes a mini-pilot in California. Being a multi-disciplinary company, SRI has a wealth of experts and experience to put systems together, quickly. In that way, SRI is unique, being able to quickly go from initial fabrication to testing to pilot scale.”

A passion for the environment through chemistry

Dr. Jayaweera’s passion has made SRI a leader in green technologies, particularly in the vital area of carbon capture. With her curiosity pushing forward innovation, Dr. Jayaweera says, “I want to see what happens next, what we do next, and how can we do it better? This is always cranking away in my head and that’s who I am.”

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