Research of graduate students receives national support

Posted: May 10, 2023

Graduate students are the lifeblood of a research program. They apply new approaches to problem-solving and create knowledge that can better inform the work of other researchers and scientists, as well as their own future work.

Receiving national support for one's research is a good indicator that the work has value to a larger circle of scientists than just one's immediate circle.

Improving fuel cell performance 

Protecting and leveraging resources in the environment to produce cleaner energy more efficiently is a goal of many researchers today. One approach is to use fuel cells, which convert fuels into electricity directly without the need for combustion. In particular, low temperature fuel cells could be used to provide power for vehicles, portable devices and small stationary power units in a way that is less damaging to the environment  than methods using combustion.  

However, the operation of fuel cells below 100o C is sometimes coupled with slow reaction kinetics and high material costs, among other challenges. 

Dishari Basu gives oral presentation, 2022 GRS
Dishari Basu gives a presentation on her research at the Fall 2022 Graduate Research Symposium

With these problems in mind, Dishari Basu, a member of the Umit S. Ozkan Group, is working on developing an innovative strategy to enhance the activity of nitrogen doped carbon nanostructures (CNx) to enhance the Oxygen Reduction Reaction (ORR) which takes place on the cathode of fuel cells. As noted above, this reaction is limited by slow kinetics and typically requires expensive noble metal catalysts.

Her project aims to improve the ORR activity of CNx by doping electronegative Bromine atoms on the surface, thereby tuning its surface electronic properties for favorable oxygen adsorption. The insights from this study will aid in designing effective metal-free catalysis for ORR by bridging the gap between the ORR performance of carbon-based catalysis and metal-containing catalysts. 

Basu's research has won multiple awards, including three travel awards to present her work at national conferences: the 2021 Tri-State Catalysis Society Travel Award, the 2022 AIChE Catalysis and Reaction Engineering Travel Award, and her recent 2023 Kokes Travel Award, with which she will travel to the 28th North American Catalysis Society (NACS) meeting to present her research.

Customizing zeolitic catalysts

Zeolites are powerful and fascinatingly complex catalysts used for a range of biomass-related and sustainable chemical transformations. 

Current research focuses on creating a molecular-level understanding of the active site structures and inventing synthetic methods to enhance performance for industrial applications.  

Leah Ford and poster
Leah Ford explains a point on her poster at the Fall 2022 Graduate Research Symposium

Leah Ford, a doctoral student working with Nicholas Brunelli, utilizes a unique approach to quantify the catalytic sites in Snβ to design, characterize, and test them for improved stability and productivity. The objective is to establish new synthesis/structure/activity relationships that will enable the zeolite catalyst to be tuned for specific reactions.

In support of her efforts, the North American Catalysis Society (NACS) awarded her a 2023 Kokes Travel Award to present a paper at the NACS biennial conference in Providence, RI in June 2023.

Net negative emissions

Yi-Chen Huang
Yi-Chen Huang

Yi-Chen Huang is working on technology that could achieve net negative emissions and is not limited to locations with large, stationary point sources such as fossil-fueled power plants.

Huang's research focuses on direct air capture (DAC) technologies that separate CO2 directly from ambient air. The research project proposes a membrane-adsorption hybrid process for DAC, which combines amine-containing polymeric membranes with physisorbents to purify the CO2 from an atmospheric level (418 ppm) to a purity of 95% while evaluating its feasibility for DAC. 

Her research project earned her a 2023 Elias Klein Founders' Travel Supplement Award to present her paper, titled “Feasibility of Membrane-Adsorption Hybrid Process for Direct Air Capture," at the May 2023 North American Membrane Society (NAMS) Annual Meeting.

Huang works with faculty members Nicholas Brunelli, Winston Ho, and Research Scientist Yang Han (2018 PhD). 

Environmentally-friendly syngas purification

Shraavya Rao
Shraavya Rao

Shraavya Rao, a doctoral student who is also working with Yang Han and Winston Ho on membranes that can capture pollutants, received a NAMS 2023 Elias Klein Founders' Travel Supplement Award as well. Rao's work focuses on H2S-selective membranes for syngas purification. H2S is a highly toxic and corrosive gas that can damage downstream equipment and catalysts. Consequently, H2S removal is crucial to minimize occupational and environmental hazards. The advantage of using H2S-selective membrane processes is that they are often less energy-intensive than traditional H2S removal methods, and can be a more environmentally-sustainable and economic alternative.