Cleaner chemical processes is goal of new center

Washington University in St. Louis is joining two other universities in a new center devoted to developing the basis for environmentally friendly chemical processes. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has announced that the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis (CEBC) headquartered at the University of Kansas has been selected to receive $17 million under the NSF Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) program. Additional funding streams and donated facilities as a result of the award are expected to bring the total package value to nearly $30 million.

The CEBC is a multidisciplinary, multi-university research center led by the University of Kansas, with the University of Iowa and Washington University in St. Louis serving as core partners. Its mission is to develop chemical processes that are environmentally friendly as well as economically viable and incite industry to implement them in practice. Professor Bala Subramaniam, Ph.D., of the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at Kansas, is the CEBC director. Daryle H. Busch, Ph.D., of the Kansas Department of Chemistry, is the deputy director, while John Rosazza, Ph.D., of the University of Iowa, and Milorad Dudukovic, Ph.D., Laura and William Jens Professor of Environmental Engineering and chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering at Washington University, serve as CEBC associate directors at their institutions.

A major thrust of NSF and CEBC is the development of “green” chemistry techniques and the application of green engineering principles that will enable the $340-billion-per-year chemical industry to whittle costs to keep the environment clean, estimated at approximately $10 billion per year.

“The School of Engineering and Applied Science at Washington University is delighted to be a part of the team which has been awarded an Engineering Research Center from the National Science Foundation,” said Christopher I. Byrnes, Ph.D., The Edward H. and Florence G. Skinner Professor and Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “Providing our longstanding expertise in chemical and environmental engineering to a great team of engineering complements the expertise of our partners at the Universities of Iowa and Kansas, and we are particularly grateful for the leadership brought to bear on this successful proposal by the University of Kansas. Now, the real work can begin, work which promises to improve the quality of life and the human condition.”

Catalysis is the acceleration of a chemical reaction through the presence of a material — a catalyst — that is chemically unchanged by reaction. Catalysts are the mainstay of chemical reactions, essential to the production of many products including medicines, foods, plastics, fibers, semiconductors, and gasoline, among others. Part of the activities of the CEBC will be focused on understanding how catalysts work, developing new catalysts and enabling them to function in environmentally friendlier solvents. The research will involve undergraduate and graduate students, and the CEBC also will have a K-12 outreach component.

According to Dudukovic, director of the University’s Chemical Reaction Engineering Laboratory (CREL), the Center will enhance Washington University’s ability to attract quality students, to better collaborate with industry partners, reach out to area K-12 schools and expand collaborations within the University, while simultaneously developing better reactors to accommodate novel catalysts promoting green chemistry.

“Participation in this Center will allow us to combine all scales of investigation, starting with the molecular and going to the large scale, to invent new catalysts that function in an environment which will allow us not to use nasty solvents and not to make nasty by-products,” said Dudukovic. “This will help us and our collaborators truly abide by the principles of green chemistry and green engineering to make these chemicals in a clean way.”

For example, Dudukovic noted that in both the production of detergents and high-octane fuels, engineers now use a catalyst with a strong sulfuric or hydrofluoric acid, which are difficult to contain and hazardous. The clean alternative is a new type of solvent which would eliminate the use of the current acids completely and make the same product in a clean way. Scientists at the University of Kansas have shown that carbon dioxide could be used as an environmentally benign solvent. The collaboration at CEBC will establish whether a viable process can be developed based on this concept.

Among many research thrusts, Dudukovic said Washington University and its collaborators will be looking at new ways to do liquid oxidation of hydrocarbons that are involved in the creation of precursor chemicals for everyday products such as nylon and polyester fibers. While Center researchers will not be making the final fiber, they will be exploring ways to more efficiently create the materials needed to make these products.

“The Center will encourage industry to explore innovations with us by allowing industrial partners to leverage the resources of our three universities to develop green chemistry,” he said. “We will be working with the three universities in our specialties to advance the state-of-the art. We have test beds, which over a period of a few years will be showing people how this new science can create a catalyst, a best reactor-separator to accommodate it, and do modern control on the whole process to maximize the environmental benefit. Ultimately, we want to show that chemistry can be done cleanly and we can have good products made cleanly in ways that won’t pollute. ”

Dudukovic said numerous companies have committed to participation in the Center. They are: DuPont, Dow, Monsanto, Exxon Mobil, Lyondell, Praxair, Procter & Gamble, Rohm & Haas, and UOP. At least six others have shown interest.

The Washington University faculty participating in the Center, besides Dudukovic, are: Muthana Al-Dahhan, Ph.D., associate professor of chemical engineering and assistant director of CREL; P.A. Ramachandran, Ph.D., professor of chemical engineering; and Jay R. Turner,Ph.D., associate professor of chemical engineering. Turner also is serving as the education co-director for the center.

The National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. John Brighton, head of the NSF Directorate for Engineering, explained the multiple aims of all NSF Engineering Research Centers. The focus of the ERC program is to develop new technologies to benefit U.S. industry by fostering collaboration with academic and industrial researchers across disciplines.

The CEBC expects to receive $17 million from NSF during the first 5-year funding period. The three universities will collectively provide $2 million toward this effort. Nearly 15 major chemical companies are expected to join CEBC as industrial partners. More than 35 faculty members at three institutions will be able to contribute their research expertise to address a variety of issues. The CEBC will employ about 35 persons, including undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral scientists, administrative and technical staff. Industrial partners will pay membership fees and will have the first opportunity to implement new technologies devised by the center. Ultimately, CEBC will sustain its growth and innovation with funding from industrial memberships and additional sponsors of research projects.