In this 21st Century Chemist profile, North Carolina State University chemist Dr. Elon Ison explains his research on catalysts that could be used to make alternative fuels -- for example, efficiently converting methane gas into methanol as an alternative to gasoline.
"Green" NC State Chemist Looks for Cleaner, Safer Fuel Process
TOM COSTELLO, reporting:
Oil, coal, natural gas – natural resources that, through chemistry, are converted into everyday products from plastics to pharmaceuticals to the fuel that runs cars, trucks, and airplanes. But those processes usually take a lot of energy and reduce the supply of resources.
Dr. Elon Ison is an inorganic chemist funded by the National Science Foundation. He's looking for more efficient and environmentally friendly solutions to some of the chemical processes used in manufacturing today. It's a growing research area called "green chemistry."
Dr. ELON ISON (Inorganic Chemist, North Carolina State University): My definition of green chemistry is doing chemistry by design in such a way that we could use our resources more efficiently; that is, to eliminate waste or to eliminate the use of harmful products.
COSTELLO: To make this possible, Dr. Ison and his team of graduate students at North Carolina State University are synthesizing, or making, catalysts. A catalyst is a substance that speeds up a chemical reaction without being consumed by it. Dr. Ison's research includes designing a catalyst that will efficiently convert methane into methanol, a possible alternative to gasoline.
ISON: We rely on petroleum and natural gas as a major resource for the way we live. We're going to run out of that resource, so we have to seek alternatives.
COSTELLO: One of those alternatives is biomass, the organic material made from plants and trees. Dr. Ison is also trying to make a catalyst that would help extract useful chemicals from biomass that could someday be used in place of petroleum to make everyday items like pillows, sunglasses, cell phones, and umbrellas.
ISON: If we are going to use these resources more efficiently, if we're going to use stuff like biomass, we're going to have to develop or design chemical reactions or chemical transformations in order to do that.
COSTELLO: Dr. Ison makes catalysts out of transition metals. Those are metal elements located in the center of the periodic table, like copper, zirconium, and tungsten. They have electrons in what are called ‘d’ orbitals or shells.
ISON: And d electrons have special shapes associated with them, allowing transition metals to make molecules that have shapes that are different than elements that utilize primarily s and p electrons. And that's very important when we think about designing special features of catalysts because what particular shape the catalyst's in kind of influences how it reacts – it influences the rates.
COSTELLO: In making a catalyst, a molecule containing a transition metal element is dissolved in an organic liquid, called a solvent, and then heated. Oxygen is purged from the solvent and replaced with nitrogen. These steps allow changes in the structure of the molecule, creating a new catalyst.
Now the solvent and catalyst are separated. The catalyst in this case is the brownish residue remaining in the flask.
Next they test for catalytic reactivity to see how well the catalyst helps transform the reactants - the molecules they want to change - into a different molecule, called the target molecule or product.
After the tests, the samples are analyzed. This small peak on the screen indicates only a small amount of product was produced in the reaction - meaning the catalyst did not perform well. So, like many times before, it's back to the lab for more tests.
ISON: We start to make rational changes. Ok, well, what about if we change a particular aspect of the catalyst, would that affect the reaction? Or, what about if we change the conditions, what if we change the temperature, what if we change the pressure under which we run these reactions. Would that change the result? And then we come back with an answer yea or nay.
COSTELLO: With so much trial and error in the research process, finding "green" solutions to industrial production processes or alternative sources will take time and a lot more work.
ISON: It's not a quick fix solution that okay well we are going to work in a lab and we are going to solve it in five or ten years. It's a problem that we have to engage on as a society and is going to take many years with many researchers tackling these very difficult problems and eventually we are going to get there.
We humans released around 39.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2014. Mostly, it came from burning coal and natural gas in power plants, making fertilizer and cement, and other factory processes. All that carbon dioxide is causing enormous problems. The biggest of all is global warming, the steady rise in average global temperatures.
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