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American Chemical Society Awards Grants

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Brian Popp Two assistant professors in the C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry have been awarded American Chemical Society-Petroleum Research Fund Doctoral New Investigator Grants to support their projects and their implications for clean energy and in industries including pharmaceuticals. Brian Popp has been awarded grant funding for his research on transition-metal-catalyzed reactions of petrochemical raw materials. Fabien Goulay received grant funding for his research uncovering new ways to produce cleaner energy sources and lower emissions. Assiatant Professor of 
Fabian Goulay

The grant, which is offered to professors with research groups at institutions offering doctorates in chemistry, is a form of “seed funding” to help launch their independent research careers. Goulay is working to reduce soot and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by lowering emissions from burning fossil fuels. His research, could improve the efficiency of energy production and aid in the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles and lower energy costs.

Consider the complex chemistry within a car that begins when gasoline, a liquid, is vaporized into a gas. The result is heat and pressure, which are transferred into energy to make the car move. Cars are powered using fossil fuels, which release a significant amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Hydrogen, Goulay said, offers a promising alternative for clean energy, but it’s produced by combustion of fossil fuels. Developing a clean source of it is key.“Hydrogen will be a good source of energy only if we can find a cheap and efficient way of making it,” he said.

Petrochemicals, Popp said, are derived from a small fraction of every barrel of crude oil and serve as the starting materials for many consumer goods, including plastics, medicines, and some textile goods.

Most of the processes that transform petrochemicals into consumer goods employ a variety of catalytic reactions that use a catalyst that acts to “jump-start” the reaction and allows reactions to proceed that normally would not. His research group focuses on reactions employing catalysts based on earth-abundant metals, like iron and cobalt, and precious metals, like rhodium, iridium, and platinum.

The funded research is specifically focused on synthesizing new metal catalysts that are zwitterions, neutrally charged molecules with both a positive and negative electrical charge, to study how these catalysts affect how the petrochemical substrates react.

The area of zwitterionic-transition-metal catalysts, Popp said, is relatively unexplored and ripe with potential for discovery. His ultimate goal, he added, is to develop the science of the catalysts and the corresponding catalytic reactions to be suitable for application in a variety of fields.

“Successful realization of this research program is expected to provide the foundation to transform multiple classes of petrochemicals into higher-value fine chemical and pharmaceutical products, an important objective for researchers in the various petrochemical fields,” Popp said.