ChE's Li awarded scientific prize and research contract with Air Liquide

World leader in gases, technologies and services for industry and health Air Liquide awarded Can Li, assistant professor in the Davidson School of Chemical Engineering, a 50,000 euro scientific prize.
Posed photo
Can Li, an assistant professor in the Davidson School of Chemical Engineering, received the Air Liquide Scientific Prize on Dec. 4 in a ceremony. The initial announcement of winners was made Nov. 23. From L-R: Matthieu Giard, Armelle Levieux, Li, Mike Graff and Jerome Christin. (Photo provided)

World leader in gases, technologies and services for industry and health Air Liquide awarded Can Li, assistant professor in the Davidson School of Chemical Engineering, a 50,000 euro scientific prize for his proposal of a novel theory and algorithm to improve data sharing within the industrial ecosystem. This enables a cooperative effort by stakeholders to reduce carbon emissions and optimize shared resources. The prize includes a three-year collaborative research contract and an additional $600,000 in funding to help transform his proposal into a market-ready technology.

Only one year into his career at Purdue, Li is eager to use the opportunity to expand his promising research and make a lasting impact on sustainable energy systems.

“In academia, we are always solving challenging problems by developing algorithms or theory, but we want to see a real impact. If industries use this very sophisticated algorithm, they can reduce their carbon emission by a big amount,” Li said. “It’s very early in my career to get research funding to work on these ideas, so I am very excited about this prize.”

Many things we interact with daily — from drinking glasses to office buildings — exist thanks to an interconnected web of industrial sectors. Manufacturers are powered by energy from utility companies, and that energy is sourced from natural gas, coal or other energy producers. Industrial ecosystems like this are integral to society, but they consume a lot of energy to meet demand, releasing CO2 in the process.

If stakeholders collaborate to optimize resources and energy use, they will reduce significantly more carbon emissions than if they were to work in silos, Li said.

“It’s not a single company operating on its own. It interacts with upstream and downstream companies,” Li said. “They might share data, but they don't want to let people know how their chemical plant is operating, for example, because there’s confidential information. That’s a very challenging problem.”

To address this and other industrial decarbonization questions, Air Liquide announced “Scientific Challenge Edition 3” in 2022, an open innovation research approach to finding advanced solutions for decarbonizing industrial ecosystems. Scientists and innovators were invited to submit proposals to address one of three topics related to the challenge.

Can Li
Li, assistant professor in the Davidson School of Chemical Engineering

In his two-page proposal, Li addressed “Data Sharing For Decarbonization.” He proposed a novel theory and sophisticated algorithm that would create a central system — like a brain — capable of handling, processing and analyzing confidential data to solve questions about optimal energy and resource use within an industrial ecosystem while maintaining the confidentiality of each stakeholder.

“We have created a very sophisticated way of making that information private, so stakeholders only need to share some unrelated information to achieve the same goal,” Li said.

With Li’s proposed theory and algorithm, different players in an industrial ecosystem, irrespective of their specific goals or objectives, can strike a balance of data sharing and collaboration to achieve sustainable smart ecosystems.

Proposals were reviewed and selected by a jury of four internal experts from Air Liquide and two external jury members, Nobel laureate and former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Isabelle Ryl, professor and director of the Paris Artificial Intelligence Research Institute at Inria.

Li is one of three laureates selected this year to receive a scientific prize from Air Liquide, announced Nov. 23. Funding also includes sponsorship for two Purdue doctoral students and travel to domestic conferences, such as the annual American Institute of Chemical Engineers meeting, where he will present his research findings on secure data sharing.

“Hopefully, we can engage more players in what we are doing,” he said. “Because this is about data sharing, not just with Air Liquide, but for other industries as well.”

Li was hired through one of four faculty positions made available to the Center for Innovative and Strategic Transformation of Alkane Resources (CISTAR) as part of Purdue’s commitment to one of the flagship Engineering Resource Centers funded by the National Science Foundation. Li’s future collaborations with Air Liquide, one of CISTAR’s founding industrial consortium members, will "no doubt transform the approach to sustainability in the industrial sector," said Fabio Ribeiro, director of CISTAR.