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Pitt, Penn researchers develop new catalytic modeling method to improve chemical production from biomass

PITTSBURGH (October 27, 2014) … A new method to model catalytic reactions and improve production of chemicals and polymers developed by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering was the cover article in the November issue of "Catalysis Science & Technology" published by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

" Structure-activity relationships on metal-oxides: alcohol dehydration " (volume 4, number 11) was led by principal investigator Giannis Mpourmpakis , assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the Swanson School. Co-authors were Raymond J. Gorte , professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, and student researchers Pavlo Kostestkyy and Jingye Yu.

"Alcohol dehydration catalysts are important in the production of valuable chemicals that are widely used in industry" Dr. Mpourmpakis said. "But even though the dehydration reactions have been heavily researched for more than half a century, the catalytic mechanisms are not well understood. If we can find a better way to model these catalytic reactions on a computer, we can reduce the amount of trial-and-error in the lab and therefore improve the production process."

While Dr. Mpourmpakis developed the computer models, Dr. Gorte at Penn conducted actual dehydration experiments to verify the results. According to the authors, this simple but powerful model would allow researchers to easily test a variety of different alcohols and metal-oxide catalysts according to their dehydration activity. Dr. Mpourmpakis explained that preparation and operating conditions greatly affect catalytic reactions, and so understanding and controlling how catalysts behave can improve the overall process and allow for more sustainable production methods. For example, their proposed catalytic modeling would enable the utilization of alcohol compounds derived from biomass, or plant-based materials, to produce olefins such as ethylene and propylene, which are the building blocks of polymers and plastics.

About the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering

The Swanson School's Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering serves undergraduate and graduate engineering students, the University and industry, through education, research, and participation in professional organizations and regional/national initiatives. The Department maintains 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 holds 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 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.


Contact: Paul Kovach