Liviu M. Mirica, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, has won a prestigious research fellowship from the Sloan Foundation.
Awarded annually since 1955, the fellowships are given to early-career scientists and scholars whose achievements and potential identify them as rising stars — the next generation of scientific leaders.
Administered and funded by the Sloan Foundation, the fellowships are awarded in close cooperation with the scientific community. To qualify, candidates must first be nominated by their peers and are subsequently selected by an independent panel of senior scholars. Fellows receive $50,000 to be used to further their research.
The foundation awarded 126 fellowships this year, including 22 in chemistry. Mirica’s was the only one awarded to Washington University this year.
Mirica will use the funds to develop novel catalysts that will be able to efficiently convert the greenhouse gases methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) into useful chemicals.
He proposes to use catalysts that consist of custom-designed organic molecules bound to metal centers — holding them like a glove holds a ball, and thus controlling their reactivity with molecules such as CH4 and CO2.
Methane, the main constituent of natural gas, is probably the most abundant organic molecule on Earth but is difficult to transport because it is gaseous at normal pressures and temperatures. If it could be converted into longer-chain hydrocarbons, it could become a significant source of energy as petroleum reserves diminish.
Methane conversion requires an oxidant and Mirica is proposing to design a catalyst that will employ dioxygen (O2) as an environmentally benign oxidant.
In addition, Mirica is interested in converting the CO2 made by burning fossil fuels — including methane — into a useful molecule, such as a liquid fuel. The difficulty here is that CO2 is very stable, which is why everything burns to CO2 in the first place.
But Mirica feels it should be possible to “close the cycle,” by recovering the CO2 produced by burning fossil fuels and converting it back to a liquid fuel, such as methanol (CH3OH), which would in turn produce CO2 when it was burned.
The catalysts would speed up the reactions by changing the way the molecules interact with one another, but each turn of the cycle would still demand the input of energy, which Mirica hopes eventually to supply from a renewable source, such as the sun, so that the overall process would be carbon-neutral.
Mirica joined the WUSTL faculty in 2008 after a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellowship at University of California, Berkeley.
Mirica earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1999 from the California Institute of Technology and a PhD in chemistry in 2005 from Stanford University.
The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is a philanthropic, not-for-profit grant-making institution based in New York City. Established in 1934 by Alfred Pritchard Sloan Jr., then-president and chief executive officer of the General Motors Corp., the foundation makes grants in support of original research and education in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and economic performance.