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August 2008

Catalysis Takes Center Stage at Chemistry Conference

PNNL scientists present surface research in memory of esteemed colleague Mike White

Scientists can learn how advances in catalysis are addressing real-world energy problems and expanding research horizons at an upcoming symposium at the 236th American Chemical Society national meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The scientific community is honoring the contributions of the late Mike White at the symposium, which will be held from August 19-21.

"Catalysis is particularly important when it comes to energy supply," said PNNL chemist Daniel DuBois. "Mike was very aware of and concerned about the big energy problem, and the role of catalysis in the solution."

Catalysts are substances that facilitate chemical reactions but are not changed by them. Catalysts change the rate at which chemical bonds are formed and broken. Researchers can use catalysts to control the rates of chemical reactions, increasing the amounts of desirable products and reducing the amounts of undesirable ones. As a result, understanding how catalysts work is important to many industrial processes including petroleum refining and production of various chemicals.

"This symposium is our way of honoring Mike and the impact he had on our personal and professional lives," said Mike Henderson, lead organizer of the symposium who studied under White and worked with him at PNNL's Institute for Integrated Catalysis.

One way PNNL scientists are harnessing the power of catalysis is through hydrogen oxidation and production, two processes necessary for fuel cells to function. So far, however, such chemical conversions are expensive, requiring the precious metal platinum. DuBois is exploring how to design alternative catalysts that use inexpensive metals such as nickel and cobalt.

"We are working to find cheaper ways to make these processes happen," said DuBois. "In order to maximize catalyst performance, we have to understand how the process works."

White, a Robert A. Welch Chair of Materials Chemistry at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the Institute for Integrated Catalysis, passed away unexpectedly on August 31, 2007. White was internationally recognized as a pioneer in many areas of surface chemistry, catalysis, the dynamics of surface reactions, and light-stimulated surface reactions. White had published more than 700 research papers in a career that spanned more than four decades.

The three-day symposium, organized by PNNL's Henderson, University of Minnesota's Xiaoyang Zhu, and Lehigh University's Bruce Koel, features 32 presentations by White's former students and post-docs, colleagues from University of Texas at Austin and PNNL, and other researchers who worked with White during his career.

PNNL presentations will also highlight advances in other areas of catalysis, including understanding reactions on the surfaces of titanium dioxide, a material with applications including solar cells and wastewater treatment, and gamma-alumina, which has the potential to increase transportation energy efficiency.

Understanding how catalytic processes work is critical to unlocking a variety of potential applications, said Chuck Peden, interim director of the Institute for Integrated Catalysis. "For example, there are a very large number of applications involving catalysis that utilize alumina as the catalyst support material."

Alumina is a common and relatively inexpensive catalyst support material. Its surface structure and catalytic properties have been the subject of much research, but its small particle size and low crystallinity have made it very difficult to study these properties, said Peden. Researchers at PNNL used the world's first 900-MHz nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer to reveal how barium oxide, which can absorb toxic nitrogen oxide emissions, attaches itself to the surface of gamma-alumina. A number of different presentations will highlight research on alumina made possible by this discovery, including its potential to reduce vehicle emissions by boosting the use of fuel efficient lean-burn engines. (For past PNNL research in this area, see Catalysis discovery takes aim at NOx emissions.)

PNNL researchers will also discuss how an understanding of catalysis can be applied to improving alternative sources of energy, including production of 5-hydroxymethylfurfural, a key intermediate between biomass-based carbohydrate chemistry and petroleum-based industrial organic chemistry. (For past PNNL research in this area, see Plastic that grows on trees.)


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