Carnegie Mellon University's Andrew J. Gellman has received a $2 million research grant from the Department of Energy. The funding enables him to continue developing solid surfaces that will have an enormous impact on the efficiency of catalysts used to create products for the specialty chemical and petroleum industries.
Gellman, head of Carnegie Mellon's Chemical Engineering Department, is leading a research team dedicated to developing new atomically and molecularly structured solid surfaces. These surfaces can be used to select between the "left-handed" and "right-handed" versions of complex molecules — molecules that appear to be identical but can have vastly different properties.
"We are developing surfaces and chemical reactions that will help a variety of industry sectors control chemical processes to select the best products from a myriad of alternatives," said Gellman, who is also director of a new energy consortium created to develop cleaner, more efficient use of fossil fuels.
Gellman said that in chemical reactions, a chemical reactant is often converted into many different products in spite of the fact that only one is desired or useful; thus creating significant waste.
"Controlling a reaction to yield only the desired product is one of the key strategies in improving the efficiency and reducing the environmental impact of chemical processes," Gellman said.
Gellman's team is tackling the hardest of these challenges, that of selecting between two molecules that differ only in their handedness.
There is significant interest in using biomolecules, such as cellulose and sugars, as the feedstocks for chemical processes and in biofuels production, according to Gellman.
"Many of these biomolecules and the products of their reactions come in right- and left-handed forms and so, the design of catalysts that will control their handedness during chemical reactions is extremely important but also extremely difficult," Gellman said.
The work being conducted by Gellman and his collaborators is also highly relevant to the pharmaceutical industry.
"By synthesizing or purifying pharmaceuticals so they contain only one-handedness improves pharmaceutical efficacy and can extend the life of some drug patents," Gellman said.