Catalyzing Opportunities

International research collaboration creates new energy sources and educational experiences

datyeBefore a big race, many endurance athletes consume large amounts of carbohydrates that their bodies convert into energy to fuel them across the finish line. Now an international team of engineers is studying how carb-loading" could help win the race to find new sources of energy for the world.

Abhaya Datye, Director of the Center for Microengineered Materials (CMEM), leads an international team of researchers and students studying large-scale chemical catalysis of biomass-derived reactants into fuels, chemicals, and materials needed by society. Biomass materials, such as cornstarch and sugarcane, are basic carbohydrates that a bio-refinery can catalyze into clean-burning liquid fuels for the transportation industry and chemicals that lead to products we use everyday.

Better Biofuels

Biofuels made from biomass materials are rapidly gaining market share and represent a big part of the future of energy around the world. Biomass is a globally distributed, abundant, and renewable resource, which can provide energy sources as well as organic carbon for industrial applications. While biofuels are already used widely, the production and processing of biomass needs to be improved. More efficient conversion of raw materials into fuel is especially important as energy prices rise and more farmers dedicate their acreage to growing crops for biofuel rather than food.

Datye and a team of researchers and students are investigating the steps in biomass catalysis and studying how to enhance selective conversion of reactants into useful products more effectively and efficiently.

The scope of the problem demands a multi-disciplinary, multi-investigator, international team because the required computational and experimental tools and skills span a range that no single investigator or institution can provide.

PIRE Partnership

That collaborative research effort is part of a Partnership for International Research and Education (PIRE), a grant funded by NSF designed to foster new international research partnerships, expand research capabilities, and provide international education opportunities for students. Of the more than 500 pre-proposals submitted last year, the NSF awarded only 20 grants in September 2007.

UNM leads the $2.5 million, five-year PIRE grant, which includes seven other institutions around the world: University of Wisconsin; Iowa State University; University of Virginia; Technical University of Denmark; the Fritz Haber Institute and the Institute for Colloids and Surfaces of the Max Planck Society in Germany; and Haldor Topsoe A/S, Denmark, a large Danish catalyst company. Haldor Topsoe has been a pioneer vin developing new tools and methods for in-situ studies of catalysts and will provide facilities for students to do research in their laboratories.

Such a large group working on very complex issues requires a visionary leader. Highly respected in the catalysis community for his pioneering research on heterogeneous catalysis and catalyst imaging, Datye is named by some colleagues as the "best microscopist in catalysis and the best in chemical engineering." He has many publications to his name and is looked to as a leader in the field. Through his seminal research on catalyst imaging, Datye provided critical information that forms the foundation of the field. He arrived at UNM in 1984 and since then has been leading research efforts and creating successful, long-standing international partnerships, some of which are part of the PIRE.

A Bottom Up Approach

The PIRE team is exploring, from the bottom up, how catalysts control the precise molecular transformations that will enable a biorefinery to generate products in an efficient manner. They are analyzing exactly how precious metals, like platinum and palladium, catalyze chemical reactions leading to processes that are highly selective. With that knowledge, they can work towards one of their ultimate goals: replacing the precious metals with less expensive, abundant resources like clay and iron oxide.

Datye says each institution will focus on different aspects of the project, then share results so the team can utilize each other's expertise. "We're addressing a global energy problem and the solutions are not going to come from just one place," says Datye. "That's why we are partnering with the leading institutions that have common interests and complementary expertise to both educate our students and work on these research challenges cooperatively."

The research program is still being developed, but three specific projects have already been defined. The focus of the first two is on hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), a compound formed during the selective catalytic conversion of sugars. HMF has the potential to serve as a replacement for the petroleum-based building blocks that are currently used in the production of plastics and fine chemicals. The team will study the downstream conversion of HMF to useful products. As an example, the team will explore the synthesis and stability of novel copper-based bimetallic catalysts for selective hydrogenolysis. Adding other metal components and manipulating solvents will allow them to enhance the catalytic process.

The second project is selective conversion of HMF and its derivatives under oxidizing conditions. Here the team will focus on gold catalysts for oxidation of HMF and its directivities to high-value organic acids. The third and final project is conversion of biomass into materials, which provides an opportunity to reverse the negative environmental effects of burning fossil fuels. This portion of the project builds on the work done by UNM's partners in Germany on conversion of biomass into carbon-based materials. The research projects will continue to evolve as the team develops novel pathways to convert biomass derived reactants into useful products.

International Opportunities

The PIRE team balances research advancements with unique educational opportunities. Students will benefit from international research and learn how education works in other countries. "That is valuable experience because our students will know how other countries do their work and who their competition is going to be," says Datye.

Each year 12 graduate students and four undergraduate students selected from the participating PIRE schools and elsewhere in the country will study abroad for up to a semester. Summer programs and workshops are also planned. The first summer school was held this year in Denmark and UNM hosted a research planning workshop in June.

Andrew Delariva, a chemical engineering graduate student researching noble metal catalysis, was one of the first UNM students to participate in the PIRE. He is also a trainer and administrator for an important PIRE research tool, the field emission scanning electron microscope (FESEM) funded by the New Mexico Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). Team members from Haldor Topsoe and the Fritz Haber Institute have already used the FESEM at UNM to analyze alumina catalysts and molybdenum-based oxidation catalysts.

Last fall, Delariva studied at the Danish Technical University and worked at Haldor Topsoe. He returned to DTU this summer to attend the PIRE summer school. "The PIRE gave me a chance to experience life outside of my research group, not only working for a company, but also exposing me to a foreign university and its methods of research," says Delariva. "Without attending UNM and working with Abhaya Datye, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to study abroad."

The PIRE's educational opportunities aren't limited to college students. The grant also includes plans for a sustainable energy outreach program for K-12 teachers who will inspire the next generation of engineers to catalyze even greater change in the world.