Assistant Professor Alex John is exploring the possibility of a viable, biomass-based alternative to petroleum products, and his research has led to a $240,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant.
John and students in his chemistry lab are developing catalysts for a type of reaction that’s necessary to turn bio materials into platform chemicals that can serve as the building blocks of many useful chemicals. So far, the catalysts required to turn plant-based material into petrochemicals have been too expensive to make the process viable on a large scale.
The beauty of biofuels is that it is sustainable, scientists can grow more fuel, and the source (plants) will consume the carbon dioxide of traditional petrochemicals fuel and replace it with oxygen, according to John.
“The results of the lab’s preliminary work showed that the students were capable of undertaking such research,” he said. “It helped us get the grant.” The grant is titled “Evaluation of Ligand Effects in Molybdenum Catalyzed Deoxydehydration Reaction.”
Rhenium is a common metal catalyst for the type of reaction that’s needed but it’s rarer than Molybdenum and 100 times more expensive. John’s group is studying the use of ligands in molybdenum catalysis. The ligands bind to the metal and allow scientists more control over the chemical environment while the reaction is taking place. The goal is a better understanding of this process, which can increase efficiency and allow production to scale up so it may become a viable alternative to petroleum products.
There are nine undergraduate and two graduate students conducting research alongside John, including undergraduate student Christine Navarro, who plans to work in cancer research in graduate school.
“The idea of green chemistry really appealed to me. I knew I wanted to do research that makes the world a better place or helps people,” she said.
Timothy Siu, an undergraduate student, said the research opportunity gave him real-world and hands-on experience that can apply to industry.
“It wasn’t until I got this research experience that I became excited about the field because it gave meaning to what I was learning in the classroom,” Siu said.