Creating a cleaner, more sustainable chemical industry is a challenge. New and better catalysts are part of the solution.
So how can catalysts help? Like little matchmakers, catalysts bring molecules together in just the right position, enabling desired products to form—without unwanted waste.
Scientists and engineers at CEBC are not just creating new, waste-preventing catalysts. We are also developing creative technologies to save energy, minimize hazards, and use renewable materials. Our target chemicals have multi-billion dollar global markets as synthetic fibers, plastics and fuels. Click here to learn more about our research.
Designed to compete
We strive to find eco-friendly, sustainable chemical processes at CEBC. But “greenness” is only one factor. New processes must perform the same or better and cost the same or less as existing processes. Economic and environmental assessments guide our research. By assessing a product’s complete life cycle—from cradle to grave—we know if our technologies are actually greener and if not, which hot-spots to target for improvement.
Bringing together chemists and chemical engineers from academia and industry not only catalyzes innovation. It speeds commercialization. While these types of collaborations are uncommon on many college campuses, this is business as usual at CEBC. For the past decade, we have been forging connections with industry and across disciplines and universities. In 2013, a $4.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation confirmed the importance of our collaborative efforts and set the stage for using computer modeling methods to understand and optimize chemical processes.
Feedstocks of the future
The chemical industry is one of the largest sectors in the world. While it has relied heavily on crude oil as a starting material for a century, the tide is changing. Advances in natural gas extraction have sparked a boom in chemical manufacturing in the U.S. In addition, consumer demand for products made from renewable resources is predicted to create a $100 billion economic opportunity by 2020. At CEBC, our cleaner technologies can be applied to both traditional and renewable feedstocks.
The chemical industry contributes substantially to our quality of life. Synthetic fibers used in clothing, life-saving medicines, durable plastics, lightweight materials, detergents, and paints are just a few of more than 70,000 products manufactured by the chemical industry. The $760 billion U.S. enterprise is a major part of the economy, accounting for roughly a tenth of U.S. exports. Nearly 800,000 jobs are directly supported by the industry with another 6 million indirectly .
Adapting to 21st century challenges
The U.S. chemical industry faces many challenges in this century. For example, the industry must adapt to a growing demand for sustainable business practices. Furthermore, volatile energy costs and strains on feedstock and water supplies are also placing pressures on businesses. In addition, a new generation of engineers and scientists, specially trained to adapt in a rapidly changing and globally-competitive marketplace will be required. CEBC's technology innovations and training opportunities are tackling these challenges head-on.
A few examples of the questions we are investigating:
- Can we rationally design new catalytic materials that maximize the formation of the desired products (meaning less unwanted byproducts) at mild conditions (less energy use) while being cost effective?
- Can we reduce or eliminate the use of hazardous materials in chemical processes, including toxic solvents and corrosive acids?
- Can we come up with a new energy efficient process scheme that reduces the number of steps, or avoids energy-intensive separation steps?
- Can we use advanced computer modeling tools to speed-up the discovery process, predict economic and environmental performance, and guide researchers toward optimal solutions?