science

American Chemical Society honors catalysis research at UW-Madison

Molecular structures and chemical equations are written on a chalkboard mounted in the hallway of the Chemistry Building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Image By: Jeff Miller

Leading discoveries in energy production emerge from the collaboration between chemistry and chemical engineering labs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. UW-Madison professors Ive Hermans and Manos Mavrikakis will receive national recognition for their catalysis research at the American Chemical Society 2019 Expo in Orlando, Florida on March 31.

Hermans will receive the Ipatieff Prize. Hermans’ aspiration for his research group over the next few years is to make further improvements in the catalysts that facilitate chemical reactions at power plants and refineries across the world. 

“Ipatieff was a Russian immigrant to the U.S. in the 1930s. He started working at a company near Chicago called UOP where he made an important breakthrough in the production of synthetic fuel,” Hermans said. 

Ipatieff’s process turned raw oil into high octane fuel, such as the Octane 100, which powers airplanes. 

“It is claimed that this superior fuel was one of the reasons the RAF was able to best German planes during the Battle of Britain, and turn the course of WWII,” Hermans said. 

In times of peace, catalysis research has industrial applications in the efficient production of various consumer goods from oil and natural gas. The alkanes in natural gas, such as propane and ethanol, are the raw material for a wide range of useful products. 

The lab recently arrived at an important breakthrough when they discovered another catalyst for the oxidation of propane to propylene. Research currently focuses on understanding the mechanisms of this reaction to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and increase catalyst selectivity for propylene as a fuel gas. In addition, Hermans’ lab studies the coupling of ethanol molecules to make butadiene, the synthetic rubber in car tires. 

“Fuels and polymers like plastic and fibers define our current standard of living. How can we produce those chemicals in a sustainable way?” Hermans said. 

Mavrikakis will receive the Gabor A. Somorjai Award for Creative Research in Catalysis. His lab employs methods in computational chemistry, including quantum mechanics and computerized algorithms, to understand the role of catalysts in chemical reactions with industrial applications. Working alongside Mavrikakis are post-doctoral researchers Tibor Szilvasi, Thomas Kropp, Lang Xu and Roberto Schimmenti. 

Looking back on his decision in 2016 to work with Mavrikakis, Xu said, “At that time, his computational catalysis strategy was a brand new concept for me, and I found the idea of using theoretical methods to understand how catalysts function at the atomic scale very fascinating.”

Somorjai is a Hungarian immigrant to the U.S. from the 1950s who contributed to the development of nanotechnology with his research on the effects that catalysts have on metal surfaces. Relating computational chemistry to the broader scientific community, Kropp said, "For a long time, computational chemistry focused on understanding experimental observations at an atomic level. Our group uses these insights to predict new materials for catalytic or sensing applications, thereby guiding experimental efforts.”

With this theoretical underpinning, Mavrikakis’ personal style makes his lab a highly creative and productive hub for research. 

“Professor Mavrikakis provides all the help he can so that his group members reach their goals," Szilvasi attested. "One can always knock on his door with any problems and he is always willing to help resolve any issues."

Xu said, “Not only does Prof. Mavrikakis’ research excellence continue to inspire me over the years, his enthusiasm for research and attention to every detail have also greatly influenced me and shaped the way I conduct my own work.”

These professors build up a legacy not only in their new research, but also the researchers they mentor and teach. 

“The most important product of my lab is well-educated students,” Hermans said. 

Hermans’ students have taken up traditional chemical engineering careers with companies, such as ExxonMobil and DOW Chemicals, or applied their analytical skills in other industries, such as financial risk management. Like many of the researchers who have worked with Mavrikakis and go on to have an industry impact, Szilvasi said, “I plan on applying the computational methods that I have learnt in the Mavrikakis group to design new functional materials.”

Speaking to key ideas for students interested in this area of research, Xu said, “I would encourage undergraduate students to think about catalysts from the atomic level. It is not just the elemental nature of a catalyst but also its atomic structure that determines the catalytic properties. For example, a large metal particle with thousands of atoms is very different from a small cluster with less than 20 atoms, or even a single atom, of the same metal. If they understand this idea, they will more likely appreciate the recent advances by our group as well as other researchers in the field to design and engineer novel catalytic materials at the atomic scale.”

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