Assistant Professor Omar Abdelrahman of the Chemical Engineering (ChE) Department has received a five-year, $500,000 grant from the prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Early Career Development (CAREER) Program to develop dynamic catalysts that can utilize renewable electricity to generate more environmentally sound and inexpensive chemical production. Specifically, his NSF research will attempt to transform the electrochemical oxidation of hydrocarbons into oxygenates.
As Abdelrahman explains his work, “Cost-effective and renewable energy is on the horizon, which is shifting the question from will we have renewable electricity to what should we do with it all? Dynamic catalysts hold the potential to one day revolutionize the way we produce the chemicals and fuels we consume as a society.”
What is a dynamic catalyst? Conventional catalysts have surface energies specific to a particular chemistry. However, dynamic catalysts can change like waves, thus oscillating binding energy that is alternately stronger or weaker than the conventional surface energy. Engineers can employ this oscillating energy to “dial in” and regulate tighter control of the catalysis process.
In response to the opportunity offered by dynamic catalysts, as Abdelrahman says, his lab “is developing energetically dynamic catalysts that can take advantage of renewable electricity for chemical production by oscillating the energy applied to the catalyst at precise frequencies, which transforms the catalytic activity and selectivity once the oscillation frequency is in resonance with the natural time scale of the catalytic cycle.”
According to Abdelrahman, his research can modulate the energies of a dynamic catalyst to maximize the reaction rate and selectivity to a desired product, thus using sustainable electrical generation to produce the specific chemical product being targeted, in this case cheaper and greener production of oxygenates.
According to Abdelrahman’s NSF abstract, the ability to leverage the recent abundance of U.S. shale gas resources as a chemical production feedstock requires the use of catalytic upgrading strategies such as the one he is researching. Constraints related to chemical composition and geographical distribution of both the feedstocks and products require the development of innovative catalytic strategies that can take advantage of these new resources.
The problem of developing these challenging new catalytic strategies is what inspired Abdelrahman’s NSF CAREER proposal.
“Motivated by the continuous growth of cost-competitive renewable electric power,” says Abdelrahman, “the use of electrochemical strategies to enable the activation of hydrocarbon resources provides a unique opportunity to reduce the environmental impact and cost of chemical manufacturing by avoiding the high pressures and temperatures synonymous with thermally driven chemical transformations.”
Furthermore, says Abdelrahman, the electrochemical approach is more resistant to major disruption events that pose resilience and safety threats in traditional chemical manufacturing supply chains.
“Therefore,” says Abdelrahman, “the development of electrically driven chemical reaction strategies in this research program has significant transformative potential. Direct electrochemical catalytic upgrading of hydrocarbon resources, however, currently is limited by both slow reaction rates and poor selectivity to desired products.”
As the head of the Abdelrahman Research Group, Abdelrahman and his research team are perfectly attuned to attacking these problems of slow reaction rates and poor selectivity through their work with dynamic catalysis, green chemistry, and reaction engineering.
According to Abdelrahman, “Satisfying the demand for fuels and chemicals via the efficient and sustainable utilization of our carbon resources is one of the defining challenges of the 21st century. Catalysis will play a central role in satisfying these vital needs by rendering existing processes more efficient as well as finding novel solutions to satisfy our chemical and energy needs.”
As Abdelrahman explains about his CAREER project, “This study will advance the development of catalytic resonance, whereby the energetics of a catalyst is modulated in time to maximize the reaction rate and selectivity towards the desired product.”
In particular, Abdelrahman’s study will focus on developing a fundamental understanding of catalytic resonance for the electrochemical oxidation of hydrocarbons into value-added oxygenates.
However, while Abdelrahman’s study will focus on hydrocarbon oxidation, the work will develop the understanding and capabilities needed for extending the concept of catalytic resonance to other important chemical transformations as well. (April 2021)