UAB and Southern Research launch collaborative pilot project

Two new studies will have an intriguing mix of catalysts, “tunable” chemical bonds, supercomputers and ultrafast lasers.

amit goyal vAmit Goyal, Ph.D.A new catalyst that lowers the cost of a major petroleum feedstock for plastics and slashes greenhouse gas emissions. This is the possible payoff from an inaugural collaboration between the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Southern Research to launch a seed-funded project by engineers and physicists from these Birmingham research powerhouses.

The immediate goal is synergy. This is seen especially in a study of catalysts used in petroleum cracking.

A catalyst is a substance that reduces the amount of energy needed to drive a chemical reaction, and the catalyst does this without its being consumed.

At SR, Amit Goyal, Ph.D., leads a team that develops catalysts to convert biomass or natural gas to fuels or create chemical products derived from petroleum. Goyal says he developed a great interest in the capabilities of UAB’s Cheng-Chien Chen, Ph.D., and Kannatassen “Krishen” Appavoo, Ph.D., to aid his search for better catalysts, particularly for the conversion of ethane to ethylene, a feedstock for plastics and other chemical products.

“Conventional ethylene production is very energy-intensive, consuming 1 percent of the world’s annual energy production,” Goyal said. “If a mild process can be developed that utilizes abundant low-grade carbon dioxide from different combustion processes and cheaply available lower alkanes derived from shale gas — at economically competitive rates — a major impact on reduction of carbon dioxide can be made.”

chen chen vCheng-Chien Chen, Ph.D.Goyal’s group is able to synthesize and characterize a variety of mixed-metal oxide compounds as potential catalysts. Chen will use quantum mechanical modeling and UAB’s supercomputer to understand the catalytic reaction mechanisms at a molecular level. Appavoo will use ultrafast lasers to look at short-lived intermediate chemical species and reactions that take place on the catalyst surface.

“In order to dig deeper for industrially relevant, promising catalyst systems, it makes a lot of sense to collaborate and understand fundamental mechanisms that will further improve the catalyst systems, or permit use of similar systems for different chemistries,” Goyal said. “This project is a good mix of physics, chemistry and computational expertise.”

Goyal works in Durham, North Carolina, as director of the Southern Research Sustainable Chemistry and Catalysis group at SR’s Advanced Energy and Transportation Technologies facility. Also in the pilot is Jadid Samad, an SR senior chemical engineer and technical lead. At UAB, Chen and Appavoo are assistant professors in the Department of Physics, UAB College of Arts and Sciences. Their backgrounds include research at four U.S. national laboratories — Chen at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California, the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, and Appavoo at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island.

krishen appavoo vKrishen Appavoo, Ph.D.The UAB/SR collaboration began last December with a research retreat for 60 scientists and engineers from UAB and SR, as Chris Brown, Ph.D., UAB vice president for Research, and Art Tipton, Ph.D., SR president and chief executive officer, were seeking ways to create more collaborations between the two institutions.

“It was a wonderful idea-exchange and incubation session,” Goyal said. “It was fascinating for me to learn about the computational modeling tools of Professor Chen and the ultrafast in-situ characterization capabilities of Professor Appavoo.”

At the retreat, Brown and Tipton announced they would jointly fund several new initiatives.

“This is a fantastic opportunity to capitalize on the scientific and engineering strengths of our two organizations — literally across the street from each other,” Brown said.  “We anticipate that this will lead to more collaboration in the future.”

“Southern Research and UAB maintain many positive collaborations, particularly in the life sciences,” Tipton said, “and this pilot study program has already proved to be a great way to catalyze more innovations and collaborations in a broader range of areas between the two organizations. I am thrilled with the range of ideas proposed and look forward to this investment in research providing returns.”

The one-year pilot, funded with $30,000, is jointly supported by the UAB Vice President for Research, UAB College of Arts and Sciences, UAB School of Engineering, and Southern Research.