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Institute for Integrated Catalysis

IIC Transformations Newletter - Issue 1
Feature Story

Integration Key in Catalysis

integrated researchersAt PNNL's Institute for Integrated Catalysis, researchers conduct research into diesel engine particulate emission filters to answer fundamental and applied questions.

When the goal is accelerating the development and transfer of fundamental scientific knowledge to technological solutions for energy challenges, the key is bringing together multiple disciplines and disparate viewpoints quickly and efficiently.

In May 2011, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's Institute for Interfacial Catalysis became the Institute for Integrated Catalysis. More than just an amendment of nomenclature, it was an acknowledgment of the IIC's evolving nature as it embraced different approaches and outlooks.

"This is really what makes the IIC unique," said IIC Deputy Director Dr. Chuck Peden. "We have developed a culture that solicits and values different perspectives – whether that is theory and experimentation, molecular or heterogeneous catalysis, or fundamental or applied science."

More than 150 scientists contribute to the IIC's catalysis-related research. These researchers form teams based on the scientific challenge, not the organizational chart.

"At PNNL we are extremely fortunate, in that when we have a critical catalysis challenge to resolve in the applied arena, we are able to leverage the exquisite suite of characterization tools of EMSL to dissect the issue and then reach out to our computational modeling experts with the aggregate and specific data," said Dr. Jonathan Male, who works in the IIC. "The computational modeling helps to accelerate the understanding of the catalyst system and inform the development of the next generation of catalysts."

This easy integration of experiment and theory has allowed the IIC to conduct fundamental surface science studies on oxides as well as work on applied programs in biomass conversion and emissions control. It is also key to the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis, an Energy Frontier Research Center.

"This large cross section of activities allows us to understand the commonalities in this diverse set of problems and provide insights that cross-fertilize the various activities," said Dr. Roger Rousseau, a theorist at PNNL.

Integration stretches beyond the typical divide of theory and experiment to the very nature of catalysis, bringing together molecular and heterogeneous catalysts. While molecular catalysts operate in the same phase as the materials they act on, heterogeneous catalysts work in a different phase, such as a solid catalyst operating on a gaseous stream of carbon dioxide.

"What we are learning in molecular catalyst design, we can apply to heterogeneous systems," said Dr. Aaron Appel, who is leading the molecular catalysis effort for carbon dioxide reduction. "In fact, significant progress has been made in understanding the thermodynamics for the reduction of carbon dioxide using molecular catalysts, such as the use of hydride donor abilities to design and understand catalysts for formic acid production and utilization."

New approaches are critical, because catalysts impact more than $10 trillion per year worldwide, including all areas of the petroleum and chemical industries. Catalysts also play essential roles in pollution control, including the reduction of vehicle emissions.

"These problems will only get solved by applying fundamental scientific answers – both for advancing the frontiers of research and for solving energy problems," said Dr. Bruce Garrett, Director of PNNL's Physical Sciences Division.

By integrating basic science with the Nation's energy needs, bringing in collaborators from academia and industry, IIC scientists are advancing the scientific frontiers and solving industry's needs, working with partners like Archer Daniels Midland and Caterpillar. They are advancing the state of the art and developing new catalytic materials and processes to attain more rapid reaction rates using milder, less energy-intensive reaction conditions, and for enhanced selectivity to produce the desired reaction products with minimal waste byproducts.

"Our mission is clear," concluded Peden. "We are bringing together the people and the tools to find and put together all of the puzzle pieces for real-world solutions."

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