Researchers from Lehigh University bring a dose of reality to the green energy movement

A Lehigh University research team is playing a key role in a multi-institution Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) renewed in September by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for a third round of funding to the tune of $13.2 million over four years.

The Center for Understanding & Controlling Accelerated and Gradual Evolution of Materials for Energy (UNCAGE-ME) is led by Georgia Tech and includes teams from Lehigh, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, the University of Alabama, the University of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania State University, and Washington University in St. Louis. Since the EFRC’s inception in 2014 and through its second renewal in 2018, Lehigh has partnered with UNCAGE-ME to help advance our understanding of how acid gases interact with energy-related materials.

In this next four-year phase, according to the announcement from Georgia Tech, UNCAGE-ME will build upon the findings of its first eight years to “address basic science questions associated with the evolution of materials to be used in clean energy technologies, including systems designed to capture and convert CO2 from the air into useful chemicals.”

“In this new round of funding, we will be focusing on mitigating the factors that degrade the performance of hydrogen generation and carbon capture/sequestration technologies,” says Israel Wachs, Lehigh’s G. Whitney Snyder Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and director of its Operando Molecular Spectroscopy and Catalysis Research Lab. “To date, most research in this field has examined the inner workings of hydrogen generation and carbon capture/sequestration technologies in lab-controlled environments. With our UNCAGE-ME partners, we’re going to address how these technologies work in the real world, where conditions can fluctuate and impurities abound.”

The Lehigh team includes Jonas Baltrusaitis and Srinivas Rangarajan, both associate professors of chemical and biomolecular engineering, as well as graduate students Emmanuel Aransiola, Johari Dramiga, and Neelesh Kumar, and postdoctoral researchers Bar Mosevitzky Lis and Sahanaz Parvin.

Through UNCAGE-ME, the Lehigh team will lead efforts to better understand electrochemical conversion of H2O to H2 and CO2 hydrogenation into hydrocarbon fuels and chemicals, as well as high-temperature solid oxide electrolysis for H2 and hydrocarbon generation. Wachs, Mosevitzky Lis, and Kumar will lead material synthesis and discovery; Baltrusaitis, Aransiola, and Parvin will focus on degradation, diagnostics, and testing; and Rangarajan and Dramiga will provide computational and informatics expertise.

About Israel Wachs

In a career spanning three decades, Wachs has earned international renown for research into fundamental and applied aspects of heterogeneous catalysis.

His research focuses on the catalysis science of mixed metal oxides (supported metal oxides, bulk metal oxides, polyoxometalates, zeolites and molecular sieves) for numerous catalytic applications (selective oxidation for manufacture of value-added chemicals, environmental catalysis (selective catalytic reduction of NOx with ammonia), hydrocarbon conversion by solid acid catalysts for increased fuel energy content, oxidative coupling of methane to ethylene and ethane, ethylene oxidation to ethylene oxide, dimerization of ethylene to butene, olefin polymerization, olefin metathesis for on demand production of scarce propylene, conversion of methane to liquid aromatic fuels, biomass pyrolysis, water-gas shift for production of hydrogen and photocatalytic splitting of water to clean hydrogen.

The research aims to identify the catalytic active sites present on the heterogeneous catalyst surface to allow establishment of fundamental structure-activity/selectivity relationships that will guide the rational design of advanced catalysts. The research approach taken by the Wachs group is to simultaneously monitor the surface of the catalyst with spectroscopy under reaction conditions and online analysis of reactant conversion and product selectivity with GC/mass spectrometer analysis. This new methodology has been termed operando spectroscopy and is allowing for the unprecedented development of molecular level structure-activity/selectivity relationships for catalysts. The spectroscopic techniques employed by the Wachs group for determination of the catalytic active sites and surface reaction intermediates are Raman, infrared (IR), ultra violet- visible (UV-vis), Near Atmospheric Pressure - X-ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy (NAP-XPS), High Sensitivity - Low Energy Ion Scattering (HS-LEIS), X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy (XANES/EXAFS), Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), Electron Paramagnetic Resonance (EPR), environmental transmission electron microscopy (STEM), Temperature Programmed Surface Reaction (TPSR) and Modulation Excitation Spectroscopy (MES). Isotopic labeling of Deuterium, Oxygen-18 and Carbon-13 is also used to track reaction pathways, determine rate-determining-steps and distinguish between spectator species and actual surface reaction intermediates.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has honored Wachs with a Clean Air Excellence award for a catalytic process he invented that converts paper-mill pollutants into value-added formaldehyde. The American Chemical Society (ACS) has given Wachs the George A. Olah Award for achievements in hydrocarbon and petroleum chemistry and the American Institute of Chemical Engineering (AIChE) has honored Wachs with the Catalysis and Reaction Engineering Division Practice Award and R.H. Wilhelm Award in Chemical Reaction Engineering. He is the recipient of multiple awards from local catalysis societies (Michigan, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia). In 2011, he was named a Fellow of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the highest honor bestowed by the society. In 2012, he was recognized by the German Alexander von Humboldt Foundation with a Humboldt Research Award and the Vanadis award from the International Vanadium Chemistry Organization. More recently, he has been honored with the Lee Hsun Research Award in Materials Science, Institute Metal Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences (2015), Google Scholar ISI Golden 100 (2019), and elected as a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (2019).

Wachs has published more than 300 highly cited technical articles (cited more than 43,000 times with an H index of 121) and holds more than three dozen U.S. patents. Additional details about the Wachs group activities (publications, presentations, awards, etc.) can be found on the group site (lehigh.edu/operando).

About Jonas Baltrusaitis

Jonas Baltrusaitis is an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Lehigh University. He holds a PhD in physical chemistry from the University of Iowa, where he conducted postdoctoral research and served in numerous roles, including adjunct assistant professor and associate director of the Central Microscopy Research Facility. He was an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Twente (the Netherlands) before joining the faculty of the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science in 2014.

Baltrusaitis’ research interests span numerous areas of sustainable catalytic conversion, including: natural gas component catalytic conversion to high value products, biomass catalytic upgrading, sustainable sulfur and phosphorus processing, renewable energy utilization in wastewater processing, low concentration organic wastewater stream treatment, emerging contaminant remediation and environmental catalysis, surface sensitive spectroscopies, and data processing method development.

His research has been funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, Pennsylvania Infrastructure Technology Alliance, Defense Logistics Agency, and Department of Defense, among others. His work has been published in high-impact journals such as the Journal of American Chemical Society, Angewandte Chemie International Edition, ACS Catalysis, Applied Catalysis B: Environmental, and Chemical Communications.

Baltrusaitis is a member of the American Chemical Society and AIChE and received a 2020 ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering Lectureship Award for his work in advanced materials science and supramolecular chemistry, applying concepts of sustainable chemistry and engineering to the delivery of more sustainable fertilizers and nutrients.

At Lehigh, Baltrusaitis has been recognized with the university’s Libsch Early Career Research Award (Spring 2018) as well as a P.C. Rossin Assistant Professorship (2017-2019). He currently directs the chemical engineering M.Eng. distance education program and advises numerous PhD students.

About Srinivas Rangarajan

Srinivas Rangarajan is an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Lehigh University. He joined the faculty of the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science in January 2017, after his stint as a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He received his B.Tech. (2007) from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, and PhD (2013) from the University of Minnesota, both in chemical engineering. His industrial experience includes previous employment (2007-2008) at Shell Global Solutions in the Netherlands and India as a senior associate technologist in hydroprocessing.

Research in the Rangarajan group is at the intersection of heterogeneous catalysis, materials science, and process systems engineering. The group develops and applies a variety of computational tools to model and design catalytic systems and materials that are of relevance in energy and environment and are governed by complex chemistries. The spectrum of tools includes electronic structure calculations using density functional theory (DFT), microkinetic modeling, optimization, cheminformatics, automated mechanism generation, and machine learning.

Rangarajan has published over 35 peer-reviewed articles, including a dozen since joining Lehigh, in reputed journals such as ACS Catalysis, Applied Catalysis B, Accounts of Chemical Research, and Nature Communications. His recent awards and honors include the David Smith Graduate Publication Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (CAST division), P.C. Rossin Assistant Professorship, and John Ochs Faculty Achievement Award from the Baker Institute of Creative Inquiry. His group has been supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Energy, NSF, ACS-PRF (Doctoral New Investigator award), and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (PITA).

Israel Wachs

Israel Wachs is G. Whitney Snyder Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Lehigh University and director of its Operando Molecular Spectroscopy and Catalysis Research Lab.

Jonas Baltrusaitis

Jonas Baltrusaitis is an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Lehigh University.

 

Srinivas Rangarajan

Srinivas Rangarajan is an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Lehigh University.

Top: Conceptual photo illustration of CO2 hydrogenation into hydrocarbon fuels/credit: Lehigh University

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