Center for Enabling New Technologies Through Catalysis
A NSF Center for Chemical Innovation
A broad portfolio of new technologies is urgently needed to produce chemicals and fuels from sustainable sources via methods that are efficient, inexpensive and environmentally benign. Chemists and chemical engineers in CENTC are collaborating on a wide range of innovative projects focused on developing the basic science that will underpin a range of new technologies for sustainable commercial processes. At the most fundamental level, CENTC scientists are investigating new reactions for the selective cleavage and formation of C-H, C-C, C-O, O-O and O-H bonds.
CENTC research is currently being carried out to address some of the most pressing chemical and economic challenges of the 21st century:
Utilization of methane gas stranded in remote areas
Methane (CH4) is the simplest hydrocarbon and is the principal component of natural gas. It is abundant throughout the world including significant reserves in the United States. The transportation of methane is difficult because it is a combustible gas and requires impractical and expensive gas pipelines and liquefaction stations. Currently methane is converted into more useful chemicals and fuels by costly and inefficient methods that require high temperatures and pressures. A direct process for conversion of methane into other valuable, portable chemicals would allow the use of untapped remote reserves of natural gas to be used as a primary source for fuels and chemicals. Our goal is to develop new organometallic catalysts that will directly transform methane into methanol or longer chain alkanes.
Chemicals and fuels from biomass
In order to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, we must develop energy-efficient, economically-viable alternatives based on our renewable resources. Our agriculture and forest resources represent domestic sources of biorenewables that can be used in the production of greenhouse-gas neutral polymers, fine chemicals, and clean fuels. To achieve this, complex, heavily functionalized bio-available materials must be reduced and converted to less complex, useful chemical feedstocks. Our goal is to develop catalytic processes for efficient conversion of biomass components such as lignin, cellulose, and carbohydrates into fuel and value-added chemicals.
Chemicals and fuels from CO2 and electricity
A long-term approach to replacing our depending on fossil fuels involves generating chemicals and fuels from CO2 and electricity. We are investigating the reduction of CO2 to methanol, since this process could have an enormous impact on global energy consumption and CO2 emissions: methanol can immediately be blended into gasoline, could be used alone as a convenient liquid fuel, and also serves as a feedstock for organic chemicals. This transformation requires hydrogen (or protons + electrons) to reduce C(+4) to the C(+1) oxidation state. Hence, we are also working towards well-defined catalysts for the sustainable generation of hydrogen from water.
Alkane metathesis and aromatization of alkanes
The interconversion of alkanes via alkane metathesis is a reaction with enormous potential utility, particularly in the context of Fischer-Tropsch chemistry, which yields a stochastic range of n-alkanes from carbon sources as diverse as coal, biomass, natural gas, or even CO2. Fischer-Tropsch derived diesel (C9-C19 n-alkanes) is clean-burning and ca. 30% more efficient than gasoline. While C>19 n-alkanes can be hydrocracked to give a distribution of lower carbon numbers, the C3-C8 fraction is not directly useful as transportation fuel and requires upgrading. Alkane metathesis would allow the “upgrading” of these low carbon number n-alkanes (C3-C8) to higher carbon numbers. Successful homogeneous alkane metathesis was reported by CENTC in 2006 and our continued goal is to develop this discovery into a viable commercial process.
Aromatic hydrocarbons are among the most important building blocks in the chemical industry. For example, benzene, toluene and xylenes (“BTX”) are three of the “seven basic building blocks” of the chemical industry, and are currently largely produced from petroleum. New syntheses of aromatics is a critical target as petroleum reserves diminish and as decreased gasoline refining (in favor of diesel) limits production of BTX by-products. Our goal is the catalytic conversion of n-alkanes to alkylaromatics using molecular catalysts.
Improved synthesis of fine chemicals
Increasing the sustainability of our society will require new industrial processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances. Catalysis can allow for “greener” production of fine chemicals and pharmaceuticals through the development of new elementary methods for challenging chemical transformations. CENTC research on catalytic reactions for the synthesis of fine chemicals has focused on the three general goals of arene amination, anti-Markovnikov olefin amination, and tandem processes combining metalloenzymes and organometallic catalysts.
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