Efforts to establish renewable energy sources and chemical feedstocks are necessary in order to sustain civilization into the future. One of the fastest-growing and most important renewable sources of hydrocarbons that can replace traditional oil and coal is biomass, which is derived from plants.
Promising new technologies for biomass conversion into fuels and raw materials for industrial processes rely on production of bio-oils, which need to be upgraded—i.e. they need to have the oxygen removed from their oxygen-containing hydrocarbons. A high oxygen concentration makes bio-oils acidic and corrosive, unstable during storage, and less energetically valuable per unit weight than petroleum-derived hydrocarbons. Professor Simon Podkolzin of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at Stevens Institute of Technology and his collaborator Professor Bruce Koel at Princeton University have been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to investigate the fundamentals of adsorption and reactivity of oxygen-containing hydrocarbons on bimetallic nanoparticles. The collaboration will advance development of new efficient and environmentally friendly technologies for the production of renewable energy and chemical industry feedstocks.
“The use of biomass energy helps to accomplish many of our nation's energy goals, including the establishment of viable sources of renewable energy and a reduction in our dependence on foreign oil," says Dr. Michael Bruno, Dean of the Charles V. Schaefer, Jr. School of Engineering and Science. “Dr. Podkolzin’s innovative research could help create a sustainable energy resource by enhancing the process of biomass energy conversion.”
Although there are efficient processes for the production of bio-oils from biomass, there are no efficient technologies for their upgrading. Current technologies utilize traditional petroleum refining catalysts, which are not optimized for biomass processing. New upgrading technologies are vital to the development of sustainable energy resources. According to Dr. Henry Du, Director of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, “The interaction of bimetallic catalysts with oxygen-containing hydrocarbons derived from biomass has shown promise as the basis for new upgrading processes. Dr. Podkolzin’s research will provide understanding of the underlying catalytic reaction mechanisms, which are crucial to the realization of efficient and effective new technologies. ”
Professor Podkolzin and Professor Koel will advance the molecular-level understanding of how oxygen-containing hydrocarbons from bio-oils adsorb and react on catalytic bimetallic nanoparticles. Research will be conducted in close cooperation with Professor Johannes Lercher at the Institute for Integrated Catalysis operating within the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The program will synergistically combine single-crystal surface science experiments, characterization and testing of supported metal catalysts, and quantum-chemical calculations with vibrational analyses for interpretation of experimental vibrational spectra and transition state calculations for reaction mechanisms studies.
The fundamental and applied knowledge from this research will advance the rational design of catalytic nanomaterials and, more widely, will benefit highly diverse and rapidly developing technologies that rely on the interaction between oxygen-containing hydrocarbons and metal nanoparticles, ranging from sensors to medical diagnostics, and from drug delivery to fuel cells. The researchers will be engaged in several undergraduate and K-12 educational outreach programs. Teaching modules on metal nanoparticles for green chemistry and sustainability will be used in a summer camp for more than 300 high school students from across the U.S.
Dr. Podkolzin is an expert on reaction mechanisms on surfaces of solid catalysts for petroleum refining and chemical industries. He has previously been awarded an NSF grant for a new catalytic process to convert natural gas into benzene and other easily shippable liquid hydrocarbons. His work with Dr. Henry Du on gold and silver catalytic nanoparticles for green chemistry and sustainability was also awarded an NSF grant, and he was recently co-PI for a Department of Energy grant to investigate microalgae as a potential non-food biomass fuel source.
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