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NSF grant to explore clean energy tech through improved catalytic processes

PITTSBURGH  (August 5, 2013) … Although catalysts have been integral to chemistry and chemical engineering for more than a century, the atomic processes behind catalytic reactions are little understood. A National Science Foundation grant will allow researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, State University of New York - Binghamton and Brookhaven National Laboratory to utilize the newest nano-characterization tools to understand how catalysis occurs and how it can enable cleaner energy technologies while reducing the creation of harmful by-products.

The study, " Collaborative Research: In situ Characterization of Methanol Oxidation Catalyzed by Copper-Based Materials ," is funded through a $459,697 grant from NSF's division Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental, and Transport Systems (CBET). The research will be led by Principle Investigator  Judith Yang, PhD  and co-PI  Götz Veser, PhD , both Nickolas A. DeCecco Professors of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at Pitt's Swanson School of Engineering. Joining them from SUNY-Binghamton will be  Guangwen Zhou , assistant professor of mechanical engineering who earned his PhD in materials science from the Swanson School in 2003.

"Catalysis is the heart of modern society and is responsible for much of our manufactured world, from fuels and plastics to pharmaceuticals and batteries," explains Dr. Veser. "But even though we understand why they work, we don't fully grasp how they work, especially at the atomic level. This grant will enable us to utilize a battery of new technologies to better understand how catalysis works at the nano-scale, thereby enabling future researchers to design and improve the next generation of catalysts."

For this study the research group will focus on copper catalysts, which are more abundant and affordable than noble metals such as silver, gold and platinum, and are used for numerous processes including methanol production. State-of-the-art characterization tools including environmental transmission electron microscopy, in situ scanning tunneling microscopy, and X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy to study the copper catalysts at reaction conditions during methanol partial oxidation. This will be coupled with computational modeling at Binghamton to test hypotheses and establish baselines for future research. 

In addition, the grant will fund graduate student research and impact future academic and outreach programs at both Pitt and SUNY Binghamton. 

"Much of catalytic research since the early 19th century has been trial and error because we don't understand what happens at the atomic level during these processes," Dr. Veser says. "We believe that our research will provide a roadmap to addressing problems facing both energy production and environmental protection."



Contact: Paul Kovach