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Reflecting on the impact of a major federal grant

Friday, June 22, 2018

A major federal grant at CEBC wraps up this summer.  Who was impacted and what was gained?

In September 2013, researchers at the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis (CEBC) at the University of Kansas received a four-year, $4.4 million federal grant as part of the Networks for Sustainable Molecular Design and Synthesis program.  It was one of only four such awards made that year by the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Brian Laird, professor of chemistry and lead investigator, assembled the team, which included Bala Subramaniam, the Dan F. Servey Distinguished Professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, Raghunath Chaudhari, the Dean E. Ackers Distinguished Professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, and Professors Ward Thompson and Jon Tunge in the Department of Chemistry.  

The 4-year grant gave 30 students and postdocs a unique training experience for careers as innovators and educators. High schools gained new learning materials.  KU gained new analytical instruments and more computing power. And, it helped spur nearly twice as many companies to partner with the CEBC. 

Best of all, the gap between theorists and experimentalists was bridged. This helped the team uncover new ways to simulate and predict systems that are not readily observable. The discoveries bring us closer to new processes for chemical manufacturing that are both safer and less-polluting than current methods. One of the target processes is a safer, phosgene-free route to dimethyl carbonate, which is an  important solvent that is used in multiple applications, including lithium ion batteries and polycarbonate plastics. The other process is a cleaner, more efficient route from butadiene to adipic acid, a commodity chemical used to make nylon.  

By supporting researchers in the Lawrence, KS, area, the grant helped boost the local economy.  Several have since gone on to launch their own careers around the country and world.  For example, three trainees became professors: Jesse Kern at Randolf College in Lynchburg, VA, Pablo Palafox at The College of St. Scholastica in Diluth, MN, and Xin Jin at China University of Petroleum in China. Former postdoctoral researcher Pansy Patel went into industry and now works at PPG, a global supplier of paints, coatings, and specialty materials in Pittsburg, PA. A few of the trainees went on to advance their academic studies, including Zeke Piskulich who recently started graduate school at KU and won a prestigious NSF award to fund his research.  

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.

Story by Claudia Bode

---CEBC Information---
Researchers at the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis partner with industry experts to create clean technologies for making chemicals and fuels.  With investments of more than $35 million since 2003, CEBC is accelerating the discovery of manufacturing processes that will meet society’s growing needs while protecting the environment and human health.



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