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Greener Chemistry: Pitt researchers find link between CO2 recycling catalysts and biomolecular enzymes to open new paths for sustainable energy

PITTSBURGH (January 22, 2015) … Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh's Swanson School of Engineering have identified a promising design principle for renewable energy catalysts. Utilizing advanced computational modeling, researchers found that chemicals commonly found in laboratories may play a similar role as biological catalysts that nature uses for efficient energy storage.

The article, " Thermodynamic Descriptors for Molecules That Catalyze Efficient CO2Electroreductions " published online on January 20, 2015 in the journal ACS Catalysis , was authored by John A. Keith, PhD , assistant professor and Richard King Mellon Faculty Fellow in Energy in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, and Aude Marjolin, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow. According to Dr. Keith, the research examined thermodynamic energetics of molecules known as aromatic N-heterocycles (ANH), which earlier studies have shown help make CO 2 recycling more energetically efficient. "Sustainable fuels research is immensely challenging because not only do we need to understand how to convert waste molecules like CO 2 into something useful, like a fuel, we also need to make the overall process not too expensive or energy-intensive," Dr. Keith explained.

Several studies over the past decade have found that common ANH molecules like pyridinium and imidazolium make CO 2 recycling processes much more efficient, but it has been unclear how ANH molecules do this. Dr. Keith's quantum chemistry analysis, completed at Pitt's Center for Simulation and Modeling (SaM), found that the same experimental conditions used to transform CO 2 are also suitable to transform ANH molecules into new molecules that possess a strikingly similar chemical structure as some well-known biomolecules. Coincidentally, nature uses these biomolecules for efficient energy storage processes. "Instead of searching for the answer to one question, this chemistry is presenting us with one answer to multiple questions."

The results allow computational scientists like Dr. Keith to now screen hundreds to thousands of molecules a week on Pitt's SaM cluster, saving time and resources of others developing CO 2 recycling catalysts. New investigations can also branch out to identify other molecules that might be able to play a similar role in other green chemical processes, such as efficient water splitting for renewable hydrogen generation or other energetically efficient routes to produce commodity chemicals in a more sustainable manner.

About the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering

The Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering serves undergraduate and graduate engineering students, the University and our industry, through education, research, and participation in professional organizations and regional/national initiatives. Our commitment to the future of the chemical process industry drives the development of educational and research programs. The Department has a tradition of excellence in education and research, evidenced by recent national awards including numerous NSF CAREER Awards, a Beckman Young Investigator Award, an NIH Director's New Innovator Award, and the DOE Hydrogen Program R&D Award, among others. Active areas of research in the Department include Biological and Biomedical Systems; Energy and Sustainability; and Materials Modeling and Design. The faculty has a record of success in obtaining research funding such that the Department ranks within the top 25 U.S. ChE departments for Federal R&D spending in recent years with annual research expenditures exceeding $7 million. The vibrant research culture within the Department includes active collaboration with the adjacent University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the Center for Simulation and Modeling, the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, the Petersen Institute of NanoScience and Engineering and the U.S. DOE-affiliated Institute for Advanced Energy Solutions.