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NSF ERC Shows Marked Growth, Advances in First Two Years

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

 [Centre for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis]

Two years after being awarded National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center status, the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis has been actively adding major industry partners, researchers and staff.

"We have seen a lot of growth in personnel, infrastructure and working together as a team; and exciting developments in the various programs are happening," said Bala Subramaniam, the Dan F. Servey distinguished professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Kansas and director of the NSF Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis (CEBC). "The key is making sure we stay on that strong positive slope and continue to evolve as a world-class center in this area." CEBC, headquartered KU, is on a one-of-a-kind mission to develop step-change catalytic processes that are not only green and inherently safe, but also economically viable for adoption by the chemicals processing industries.

On October 1, 2003, the center won NSF ERC designation with a $17-million grant for an initial five-year period. Matching funds and facilities from KU and CEBC partner institutions brought the value of the five-year grant to more than $30 million. Researchers and engineers at KU and partner institutions — the University of Iowa, Washington University in St. Louis and Prairie View A&M; University — are employing a multiscale approach to assemble bench-scale proof-of-concept test beds. This approach involves unparalleled collaborations among a multidisciplinary team of chemists, biologists and engineers who simultaneously address the various research and development aspects of a process ranging from molecular to pilot plant scales. Daryle Busch, Roy A. Roberts distinguished professor of chemistry at KU, serves as deputy director of the center.

CEBC has grown to approximately 110 researchers, students and staff, and six industry partners with nearly 60 active systems-based projects that fall into four main thrust groups.

· Catalyst Design, Discovery and Engineering

· Media Design, Evaluation and Characterization

· Advanced Measurements Pertaining to Reactions and Reactors

· Molecular and Process Modeling/Optimization

Five new faculty positions, provided to CEBC by KU, add to the research potency at the center.

"We have recruited so far two (new faculty) in engineering and one in chemistry. These faculty members bring complementary research strengths to the program. We also have a couple searches under way this year," Subramaniam said.

The systems-based research strategy integrates the various technical elements (catalysts, media, reactors, economic and environmental analyses) into well-defined bench-scale processes suitable for technology transfer consideration.

The current focus on these catalytic systems includes:

· Hydroformylations and hydrogenations

· Selective oxidations (inorganic, organometallic and biocatalytic)

· Solid acid catalysts

"In the area of solvents, we have now been able to show that green solvents involving carbon dioxide as a component, we call it CO2 expanded solvents, ... are ideal for two very broad classes of reactions, oxidations and hydroformylations," Subramaniam said. In addition, because currently available solid acid catalysts are not active enough or they are not able to produce the types of products that researchers and industry want, CEBC has honed its own work in this field. "We have started an in-house program where chemists and engineers working together are trying to develop novel solid acid catalysts to substitute for liquid acids. Professor (Mikhail) Barybin in chemistry has synthesized what he calls CH-type solid acids, in a very environmentally friendly way... and quite economically, as well."

All the center's efforts are geared toward finding green and affordable solutions for the U.S. chemicals industry.

In fact, a high level of industrial collaboration is one aspect that makes CEBC stand apart from other university research centers. The center has several industrial partners who also are represented on an industrial advisory board (IAB), Subramaniam said. The IAB ensures that the center concentrates on the barriers key to industrial advancement.

"What are the grand challenges which, if solved by the center, would help industries gain a competitive edge? CEBC's strategic research plan involves developing solutions that have broad applications in many processes. Directing projects such that they produce such an impact is where the IAB members' guidance becomes valuable."

"Ideally, the CEBC core projects would produce tools — fundamental know-how and enabling technologies — which industry can exploit exclusively in their specific businesses," Subramaniam said. The industrial partner may then sponsor research projects that address specific company needs.

"The major outputs would be cutting-edge science and technology and uniquely trained students," Subramaniam said.

Students at both the graduate and undergraduate level play a crucial role in the activities of CEBC.

"We are beginning to see how students in engineering and sciences come together, and develop a special type of appreciation for the scale of industrial R&D;," he said. The students better understand what occurs at the fundamental level and how what they do is relevant to the development of the end product. The faculty and students learn to gather feedback from industrial partners and reorient the project to achieve a desired result.

"It's a unique team-oriented research culture, something that industries like to see," Subramaniam said.

Education and outreach to a variety of audiences is a major component of CEBC's mission.

Everyone affiliated with the center is expected to take part in activities that expose youths in grades K through 12 to the sciences and engineering. The goal is to increase the number and diversity of students pursuing careers in engineering or science and give them unique experiences that challenge them to think and perform in novel ways. In addition, an REU program involving several undergraduate students from across the nation is giving college students valuable research opportunities during the summer.

Students affiliated with any of the partner institutions also can take advantage of unique distance-learning courses that strengthen the curricula of all the institutions. For example, specific courses taught by CEBC faculty at KU are listed in the course catalogs of partner institutions. Students can enroll and take part in the course without leaving their home institution through a live, interactive Polycom multipoint conferencing video feed.

"Students do travel from one campus to another campus, not for a class, but to do research," Subramaniam said. A student from the University of Iowa recently spent a week a KU using specialized equipment in one of KU's labs. Subramaniam anticipates sending KU students to partner institutions and to industries for summer internships. "This is all going to be part of their overall experience at the center."

Furthermore, CEBC has developed a program of short courses designed to help inform industry partners of the latest developments in topics that relate to the center's mission, such as two programs on green solvents and economic viability to be held at the end of October at the University of Iowa.

CEBC's headquarters, a multi-building facility easily accessible off of KU's main campus, is currently in Phase 2 of its renovations. Approximately 6,500 square feet of additional state-of-the-art laboratories and research instrumentation will provide special facilities and space for industry projects.

Learn more about CEBC at


Current full industry members



Conoco Phillips



Procter & Gamble

Research Expertise

Catalyst design, synthesis and characterization (homogeneous and heterogeneous)

Biocatalyst preparation and characterization

Synthesis of catalyst supports with controlled pore structure

Benign media including carbon-dioxide based solvents and ionic liquids

Probing reaction mechanisms with advanced analytical tools

Advanced molecular modeling of chemical physical and thermodynamic properties involving reactions and media

Multiphase reactor design and analysis

Economic and environmental impact analysis

Computational fluid dynamics

External Scientific Advisory Board

Dr. David Allen, Chemical Engineering, University of Texas at Austin

Dr. Alexis Bell, Chemical Engineering, University of California, Berkeley

Dr. Joseph DeSimone, Chemistry, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Dr. Jonathan Dordick, Chemical Engineering, Rensselear Polytechnic Institute

Dr. James Espenson, Chemistry, Iowa State University

Dr. Rodney Fox, Chemical Engineering, Iowa State University

Dr. Michael Harold, Chemical Engineering, University of Houston

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