Vanessa DeShambo, environmental engineer

Vanessa joined the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) in December 2021 as an environmental engineer. Prior to joining the ISTC team, she worked at the U of I College of Veterinary Medicine performing case work and research related to veterinary infectious disease with a primary focus on micro and molecular biology. She also spent her early career with the Allen Institute for Brain Science managing research on mouse genetics and neuroscience. Her research is currently focused on improvement of algal systems for wastewater treatment. Projects topics include hydrothermal liquifaction, nanofiltration, algal toxin destruction, bioaugmentation, and endoreduplication.

Vanessa recently answered some questions about her work.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at ISTC?
I’m relatively new to ISTC, and my primary research currently revolves around using algae to treat wastewater and producing biofuels from that algal biomass. I previously worked at the College of Vet Med, Veterinary Diagnostic Lab doing microbiology clinical case work for over six years. I also worked at the Smithsonian National Zoo and Allen Institute for Brain Science, so I have had a lot of different experiences in my career. I earned my bachelor’s degree in biology at St. Norbert College and my Master’s degree in natural resources and environmental science (NRES) from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I have a strong interest in microorganisms, plants, and animals so natural sciences are a great fit for me. I have two kitties and love to garden and play video games in my free time!

What drew you to your particular area of study?
While working at Vet Med I decided to further my education, and chose NRES because I still had a strong interest in the field, but wanted to continue working with microorganisms. I hope to mix my love of microbiology and environmental science to make a positive impact by coming to ISTC!

What tools are indispensable to your fieldwork?
For my work I have a mix of laboratory, project management, and pilot-scale field work. I could be sampling wastewater sludge, teaching a group of students, or I could be analyzing data on any given day. My most valuable tools are Evernote to keep myself organized, Excel to process data, sample vials, and a microscope!

What do you wish more people understood about your work?
That there is no perfect one size fits all solution to our problems. It takes many minds and many solutions to tackle big problems. I also wish people understood that microorganisms can have a big impact on an ecosystem, even though you can’t always see them at work.

This story first appeared on the People of PRI Blog. Read the original story.

ISTC-led team to design large-scale system for direct air capture and storage of carbon dioxide in the U.S.

Climeworks’ Orca plant, the world’s largest direct air capture and CO2 storage plant, in Hellisheiði, Iceland. ©Climeworks
Climeworks’ Orca plant, the world’s largest direct air capture and CO2 storage plant, in Hellisheiði, Iceland. ©Climeworks

Carbon emissions continue to rise, ratcheting up temperatures and driving increasingly extreme weather events worldwide. Therefore, carbon capture and management will be a crucial step in curbing climate change.

There are two main categories of carbon emissions: point-source and nonpoint-source. Point-source emissions come from a single source such as a power plant or a factory. Nonpoint-source emissions are harder to pinpoint and to address because they cover a widespread area and can come from a variety of sources like automobiles, airplanes, boats, and more.

“In order to offer a more robust solution to carbon management, you have to be able to address both point-source emissions and nonpoint-source emissions,” said Kevin OBrien, director of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC).

The U.S. Department of Energy National Energy Technology Laboratory (DOE-NETL) has partnered with ISTC in a nearly $2.5 million project to develop preliminary designs and determine feasibility for the first commercial-scale direct air capture and storage system (DAC+S) for CO2 removal in the United States.

This 18-month project will explore the possibility of pulling 100,000 tonnes of CO2 from the air annually. Project principal investigator OBrien believes this amount will help offset steep upfront costs and make the service profitable, at least at a commercial scale.

“The potential impact this could have would be immense, because now you can address unavoidable nonpoint sources by pulling CO2 out of the air, hopefully in any type of climate anywhere around the world,” said OBrien.

The project will use DAC technology provided by the Swiss company Climeworks. Climeworks has built and operated several DAC plants in various climates across Europe, among them the world’s first industrial-scale DAC plant in Hinwil, Switzerland, and the world’s largest DAC+S plant, Orca, in Hellisheidi, Iceland.

Three different climates, different renewable energies, and different approaches to carbon storage

Widespread deployment of DAC systems in the U.S. must account for wide variations in regional climates. Temperature and relative humidity can impact the efficiency of CO2 removal technologies.

The ISTC-led team will address climate efficiency challenges by testing the large-scale DAC systems and storing the captured CO2 at three test sites across the U.S., examining the effects of different climate conditions on CO2 storage.

  • Hot and very dry climate – A test site in southern California near the Salton Sea will be powered by geothermal energy, with the captured CO2 stored in a saline aquifer.
  • Hot and humid climate – A test site in Louisiana will use solar energy to power the DAC system while storing the captured CO2 in a saline aquifer.
  • Midcontinental climate – A test site in Wyoming will operate using wind power and store the captured CO2 in a depleted natural gas reservoir.

In addition to Climeworks, major partners in the project consortium include Kiewit Power Engineers, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Gulf Coast Sequestration, North Shore Energy, Sunpower, Ormat, and Sentinel Peak.

For more information, read the entire DOE announcement.

Media contacts: Kevin OBrien,

Meet Zach Samaras, Technical Assistance Engineer, Sustainability

Zach Samaras, technical assistance engineer, sustainability

by Tiffany Jolley, Prairie Research Institute

Teamwork and expertise drive success with major decarbonization projects


From 2018 to 2020, ISTC submitted over 200 proposals for technology R&D projects, winning more than 60 percent of those projects and bringing in more than $84 million in external funding. Major partners include the U.S.  Department of Energy (DOE), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the state of Illinois.

“We have a very strong technical team with extensive industrial experience,” explained Kevin OBrien, director of ISTC and the Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS). “The key thing with experience is everyone is bringing their own knowledge and expertise to the table, whether it’s knowing permitting and regulatory procedures, understanding how to scale up and construct these large systems, or understanding techno-economics and lifecycle assessments.”

ISTC’s planning process is comprehensive and organized. The journey from lab to commercial scale involves a team of engineers, accountants, and project managers who focus on correctly handling every detail.

“We realized long ago that executing a successful interdisciplinary research endeavor at a commercial scale is a meticulous journey that requires significant experience, technical expertise, and trial and error,” OBrien said. “We’re unique in that we can check all of those boxes at a very high level and offer new technologies and opportunities to our partner host sites.”

One of those partners is City Water, Light, and Power (CWLP) in Springfield, Illinois. Over the past 15 years, CWLP has partnered with ISTC on several projects, including work on emissions, CO2, and wastewater. “We’ve really run the environmental gamut with ISTC,” said PJ Becker, environmental health and safety manager at CWLP. “ISTC has been a responsive and professional partner and we’ve been able to benefit immensely from the technology.”

ISTC environmental engineer Stephanie Brownstein is the lead for the large pilot test of the Linde-BASF carbon capture technology at CWLP. “We’re a diverse group with people on our team who are experienced with fieldwork and process work to be a liaison between partners,” she said. “Also, we don’t own the technology, which helps us work to be a broader advocate for everyone. We’re fighting for the success of the project as a whole, not just a single entity.”

Prairie State Generating Company (PSGC) in Marissa, Illinois, is another of ISTC’s project partners. ISTC, ISWS, the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS), and partners Kiewit Engineering Group, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America, and Sargent & Lundy will design a system to capture more than 90 percent of carbon emissions at the facility and incorporate additional carbon offset strategies to achieve net-zero CO2 emissions.

The FEED study is made possible through a $15 million grant from the DOE Office of Fossil Energy, which is administered by the National Energy Technology Laboratory. PSGC contributed $3.75 million to the project.

“We envision ourselves at the forefront of the carbon capture industry and we’re currently working toward building the largest commercial carbon capture system in the world,” said Jason Dietsch, project manager for the front-end engineering design (feed) study at PSGC.”

“That vision is what pushes us to meet and exceed every milestone we set with DOE. We are part of a very broad team with very different backgrounds that complement each other, but I think what makes our team at ISTC uniquely successful is that we understand that we succeed as a team and we fail as a team,” Dietsch said.

With multiple major projects in progress or about to launch, OBrien
is optimistic about what lies ahead.

“For someone like me who started back in the lab, to see this come together is huge,” he said. “We aren’t just working at lab scale anymore, we are working at commercial scale, and it’s an exciting time to have this opportunity for ideas and concepts for carbon reduction that we have been working on for a long time to be deployed on a big stage.”