University-Industry-Government Institute Will Study Pollution Control Chemistry In A Unique Virtual Collaboration

October 01, 1998

Researchers at Northwestern University, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory will partner with scientists and engineers at five major chemical companies in a unique Internet-facilitated collaboration to study the essential chemical process by which pollutants can be neutralized at their source or in the environment.

A new Institute for Environmental Catalysis will be established at Northwestern with a five-year, $7.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. The federal funds will be augmented by an additional $4.8 million in cost-sharing from the State of Illinois and the university. DOE also awarded $1 million to Argonne for its collaboration in the institute.

"An improved understanding of just one type of catalytic reaction -- the oxidation of organic, or carbon-based, compounds -- could reduce the environmental impact of an incredibly wide range of human activities," said Peter C. Stair, professor of chemistry at Northwestern and director of the institute.

Researchers at Northwestern, including student researchers performing experiments at the bench, will be linked electronically to industrial scientists at Allied Signal, Dow Chemical, Engelhard Corp., Union Carbide, and UOP Research Center. The companies have offered staff and resources, and in some cases student internships, to augment the research effort.

"The role of the corporate partners is not financial sponsorship, but intellectual collaboration," Stair said. "Their scientists and engineers will work with our faculty and students to study these environmentally important processes in real-life situations."

The high-tech link between the university, industry and government researchers is a new Internet-based laboratory communication tool called a "collaboratory," or electronic laboratory notebook, developed at Pacific Northwest. Electronic access to instruments, data and laboratory notebooks, as well as computer display sharing with annotations and remote control, allow distant users of the collaboratory to interact as closely as if they were down the hall. The new institute will be the first outside user of Pacific Northwest's collaboratory.

Catalysis is one of the most important phenomena in nature and in industry. A catalyst is a substance able to loosen the chemical bonds in two or more reacting chemicals -- without itself being consumed or altered. Examples of catalysts include enzymes, which carry out the biochemical reactions of life, and the surfaces of finely divided metallic substances.

Catalysis is used for the production of most chemicals and for the treatment of emissions. The removal of smog-producing nitrogen oxides from combustion exhaust, the more efficient use of fossil fuels for energy production, the clean production of many useful chemicals and the biodegradation of pollutants in ground water can all be improved by advances in the controlled catalytic oxidation of organic compounds, Stair said.

"It's a narrow topic with broad applications. If we focus on this one area of catalytic chemistry, and if we can understand the science better, then we could have a huge impact on a wide range of environmental problems."

Altogether, the new institute brings together some 50 senior researchers with backgrounds in chemistry, chemical and environmental engineering and materials science. They will be organized into three process-oriented research groups -- chemical processing, emissions treatment, and natural environment -- and a core group studying the molecular science of catalytic oxidation (MSCO).

The process-oriented groups will focus on specific catalytic oxidation processes, while the MSCO projects seek to answer the most fundamental, molecular-level questions about catalytic oxidation and to develop the tools required to obtain molecular-level information on the complex, real-world systems studied by the process-oriented groups.

Stair expects institute researchers to be heavy users of Argonne's Advanced Photon Source, which is capable of producing the world's most brilliant X-ray beams.

"It's always harder to study chemistry on a surface, where most catalysis occurs, than in a bulk material," Stair said. "The great brilliance of the APS X-rays not only lets us probe the atomic structure of solid surfaces, but actually allows us to examine the complex changes that occur at the surface of a catalyst during the course of a chemical reaction."

In addition to its research mission, the institute will train scientists and engineers in state-of-the-art catalysis techniques and educate the public about the role of catalysis in manufacturing and environmental protection. One third of the institute's funding will support education, including faculty time for developing courses and K12 community outreach. According to Kimberly Gray, co-director of the institute, who will also oversee education programs, the institute plans to provide Chicago public school students hands-on experience with catalysis through a program at Argonne.

"We plan to develop a new, interdisciplinary curriculum in environmental molecular science, and to develop instructional materials as well," said Gray, who is associate professor of civil engineering in Northwestern's Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. The institute will host workshops for practicing engineers and industrial scientists and bring them together with academic researchers, she said.

A new direction in catalysis research, Gray said, is to combine traditional chemical catalysis with the newer area of "biocatalysis."

"This coupling happens in nature all the time, and we hope to be able to adapt these processes to produce chemicals with greater economic and environmental efficiency."

Northwestern University

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