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Undergraduates Advance CEBC Research with Summer Projects

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Undergraduates from across the country came to KU this summer to participate in NSF-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs. Several of these students worked with faculty at the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis (CEBC), as described below. 

Kevin Bane, chemistry student from Dana College, Blair, NE, worked with Assistant Professor Timothy Jackson to study how new catalysts can be used to make value-added chemicals from biomass.  Renewable plant materials are rich in sugar molecules. Current methods to convert these molecules into useful chemical intermediates, such as glucaric acid, use a corrosive oxidant called nitric acid.  In the search for a greener alternative, Kevin investigated this reaction using less toxic manganese hydrogen peroxide catalysts.

Justin Borchers, chemical engineering student at Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, WA, worked with Prof. RV Chaudhari to develop new catalysts that will convert glycerol into 1,2-propanediol, an ingredient commonly found in cosmetics, deodorants, toothpastes, food colorings, etc.  Glycerol is an abundant by-product of biodiesel production.  Converting glycerol into 1,2-propanediol upgrades it to a more valuable chemical with high commercial potential.  Justin made 15 new bimetallic catalysts, which will be tested this fall. 

Héctor Camareno Ojeda, a chemical engineering student from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, PR, worked with Professor Bala Subramaniam.  Héctor’s project focused on how to remove oxygen from biologically derived oils, or bio-oils.   These renewable oils could one day replace petroleum-derived fuels, but significant challenges must first be overcome.  For example, high levels of oxygen in bio-oils make them viscous and unstable at high temperatures.  Héctor studied how to remove the oxygen, in the form of water, from bio-oils by treating them with a special catalyst at mild pressures in supercritical reaction conditions.   An invention disclosure was filed based on Héctor’s research.

Ryan Kelly, from Pennsylvania State University, worked with Associate Professor Aaron Scurto to study how to make an important pharmaceutical intermediate called naphthalene dihydrodiol (NDHD) using a bacterial strain of E. coli.  The bacteria naturally have special biocatalysts that add oxygen to a specific molecule to make NDHD.  But, one of the drawbacks with this bacterial system is that the solvents used to separate NDHD from the broth are toxic to the bacteria.  Ryan tested several different ionic liquids to see how well they could separate NDHD.  Unlike other organic solvents that evaporate and pollute the air, ionic liquids are non-volatile.  Ryan found that more research is needed to find the right ionic liquid that is both non-toxic to the cells and good at separating NDHD. 

Jenna Wasylenka, chemistry student at Sweet Briar College, Sweet Briar, VA, studied the kinetics of biodiesel production with Professor Susan Williams.  Biodiesel is currently made from plants, such as soybeans, or used cooking oils.  The process requires a catalyst, which is most commonly an alkaline catalyst, such as potassium hydroxide.  Unfortunately, the basic conditions can produce soap instead of biodiesel. To avoid this problem, acid catalysts can be used, but the reaction rates are much slower. Jenna studied the kinetics of biodiesel production using sulfuric acid to serve as a baseline comparison for new acid catalysts. She also explored the catalytic activity and recovery/reusability of a solid acid. Preliminary data indicate that the solid acid is a useful catalyst for the production of biodiesel. This is good news because a solid catalyst can more easily be recovered/reused than liquid catalysts, which would be more environmentally and economically beneficial than the current process.

Additional undergraduate researchers at the University of Kansas:

Haley Kreutzer worked with Professor Bala Subramaniam to investigate how carbon dioxide affects the solubility of chemical reactants in a solvent.  Specifically, Haley measured the enhancement of syngas solubility in octene and nonanal in the presence of carbon dioxide.

Ken Livengood, chemical and petroleum engineering student at KU, worked with Professor Aaron Scurto to student the kinetics of producing ionic liquids.  These solvents are greener than conventional organic solvents because of their vanishingly low vapor pressure, which means they do not pollute the air.  However, the price of production severely limits their use.  Small batch operations are currently the main method of synthesis. A more cost efficient method is needed to make ionic liquids an attractive alternative solvent. Ken performed kinetic studies to determine the rate constants for various synthetic reactions. With these rate constants more efficient reactors can be designed to decrease operating costs.

--Story by Claudia Bode

CEBC Calendar

April 12, Wednesday - Mandatory Lab Safety Meeting
All researchers at 1501 Wakarusa Dr. must attend

9:00 a.m. in Building B seminar room

April 24 & 25, Spring IAB/SAB Meeting
Monday, April 24, 11:00 a.m. - 7:30 p.m. at Adams Alumni Center, 1266 Oread Ave.
Tuesday, April 25, 8:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m. at the CEBC complex, 1501 Wakarusa Drive

April 28, Friday - Shiflett Research Open Laboratory
Tours of facilities & research presentations; light refreshments served
2:00-4:00 p.m., LEEP2 Lab 2444
inquiries: contact


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