KU receives $4.4M federal grant to design safer chemical manufacturing processes

Fri, 10/04/2013


Claudia Bode
Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis

LAWRENCE – Manmade chemicals are everywhere: in the clothes we wear, the cars we drive and nearly everything we use in daily life. Many of those chemicals, however, are derived from dwindling fossil-based sources and through processes that can be harmful to the environment.

That could soon change. Researchers at the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis (CEBC) at the University of Kansas recently received a four-year, $4.4 million federal grant as part of the Networks for Sustainable Molecular Design and Synthesis program. It is one of only four such awards made this year by the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Countless consumer products depend on synthetic plastics, fibers and foams,” said Bala Subramaniam, director of the CEBC and Dan F. Survey Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering. “One of the greatest challenges facing the chemical industry is to develop sustainable manufacturing processes that eliminate the use of hazardous materials, minimize waste, conserve resources and improve safety.”

Reviewers of the CEBC grant proposal cited its innovative design approach. “In addition to traditional laboratory experiments, we will develop and use molecular-level computer modeling methods to understand and optimize different chemical processes,” said Brian Laird, professor of chemistry and lead investigator for the project. “The experimental and computational chemists will work in close collaboration to design manufacturing processes that are environmentally and economically superior to those in use today.”

A major part of the project will be the identification of “hot spots” in the manufacturing chain that involve toxic materials or are prone to emitting waste. The CEBC research framework will be applied to two examples of high-volume chemical processes. One is a safer, phosgene-free route to dimethyl carbonate, an important solvent that, among many applications, is used in lithium ion batteries and has potential for use in the manufacture of polycarbonate plastics. The other process is a cleaner, more efficient route from butadiene to adipic acid, a commodity chemical used to make nylon.

“This is a great opportunity to use tools developed at the CEBC to bypass industrial hazards,” said Subramaniam. “With these tools and our existing state-of-the-art infrastructure, we’re in a position to make substantial progress toward tackling these problems almost immediately.”

In addition to Laird and Subramaniam, the CEBC team includes Raghunath Chaudhari, the Deane E. Ackers Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, and Professors Ward Thompson and Jon Tunge in the Department of Chemistry. The project will support five graduate students, five postdoctoral researchers and several pre-service high school science teachers.

CEBC’s corporate partners in the project include Evonik, Invista, Archer Daniels Midland, Chevron Phillips Chemical Company Co. and Honeywell UOP. They will help guide the research toward commercialization. Discoveries emerging from the research could be especially beneficial to producers – in Kansas and elsewhere — of natural gas feedstocks used in the targeted manufacturing processes.

Laird says that the new discoveries and methodologies are likely to find broader impact in the design of other major chemical processes, such as those used in the production of pharmaceuticals. The work will also complement efforts under way at the CEBC to develop clean technologies for converting biomass into chemicals. That work is part of a $5.6 million grant awarded in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“At a time when federal research funding is at risk from the budget sequester and other uncertainties, this grant speaks to the high quality of research being done at the CEBC,” said Steve Warren, vice chancellor for research and graduate studies. “This federal investment will have positive, far-reaching effects for Kansans and everyone else who uses products created from synthetic chemicals.”

Did you know the Spooner-Thayer Art Museum was KU’s first art museum? It opened more than 50 years before the Spencer Museum of Art that we know today. Learn more here: http://bit.ly/1oKmgXn Tags: Spencer Museum of Art #KUtbt #TBT #KUdiscoveries #Art #Museum #Gallery #VisualArt Photo credit: University Archives in Spencer Research Library.

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Poet offers insights to Jayhawk experience through wordplay "Welcome to KU. Where questions rest, in stacks of answers from the past. …" Listen to Topher Enneking, a spoken word poet and former KU football player, as he weaves the experience of KU and its traditions through this storytelling and wordplay performance. Learn more about KU traditions at http://www.ku.edu/about/traditions/. Welcome to KU. Where questions rest in stacks of answers from the past. Where dreams crawl out of bed And learn to walk Uphill both ways. Where freshmen stand on stilts And hang from the rafters, While the wheat waves In a fieldhouse Where the Phog rolls in Helping us to see Through the past into the future. Haunting hosts giving handouts in a heritage Too heavy to grasp til you add to it. So it may be born anew, Allowing our boots to stand in the ash of oppression’s hate But shine bright as the sun While war cries of warriors past Ring in our ears long after their battles are won. Memorials telling time, “you don’t have to stand still.” Because the top of the world Is just up that Hill. Where our natural history is an awe-struck echo Of world’s fair and equal Past, present and future, prelude and sequel. Where our flags fly above planes. Where we build in chalks that can’t be erased. Stone edifices made to last So you would walk Past their doors, down their halls And let your voice fill their room. Because only in empty silence can destruction loom. So stand tall. Wrap your arms around this crowd Sing our alma mater and sing it out loud. Let your voice sing in chorus and reach other nations Beckoning new Jayhawks to spark new collaborations Because you are the mortar that will hold these walls upright. Your future Your dreams are why Jayhawks did fight For the tradition before you Was merely prelude For what will come next now that you’re at KU.

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