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Institute for Integrated Catalysis

Integrating Fundamental and Applied Research on Catalysis

"It [is] quite typical of technology not to wait at all until Science has tidied up a thing theoretically before applying it." – Wilhelm Ostwald, Nobel Lecture, 1909

by Robert Weber and Thomas Brouns

From experiment to theory and application, PNNL catalysis scientists work together. Here, David Heldebrant, Vanda Glezakou and Charles Peden share basic science ideas to solve real-world problems.

National labs are an outstanding resource for achieving scientific advances that are the engine of growth for our nation's economy and allow us to maintain our global position as innovators because the labs can harness the power of both collaboration and diversity. At the national labs, researchers continually obtain insights that lead to both evolutionary and revolutionary changes in chemical, automotive, and sustainable energy industries. These changes have resulted in economic growth. The key to this type of innovation is close interactions within diverse, collaborative teams bridging from fundamental scientists to problem holders.

Making productive, innovative teaming happen on a consistent basis requires people with expertise in theory, computation, and experimentation. At the Institute for Integrated Catalysis, we routinely deploy theory & computation, highly resolving spectroscopies, chemical modeling, detailed kinetic modeling, and process engineering that reveal the irreducible complications that arise in practice. Yet, this is only half the equation. This expertise must be integrated with those who understand the problem sets. Integrated teams facilitate the transfer of fundamental knowledge to the applied science effort, identify roadblocks to practical solutions to applied science problems for concentrated fundamental research and accelerate transition of these scientific results to industry for real-world applications.

The success of this approach is reflected in the vigor of our collaborations, in our publications, in our patents, but also in our award-winning research that has been commercialized. A microchannel reactor technology was led by Velocys with scientific contributions from us. The advanced reactor technology greatly reduces the size and cost of next-generation biofuel facilities, allowing Velocys-FT to benefit from the economics at smaller scales, more easily deployed and modular units, and improved heat transfer.

Commonly made from petroleum, the additive propylene glycol can also be made from plant byproducts. Several PNNL researchers developed a chemical catalyst that converts a plant-based compound into the additive at a rate and cost that Archer Daniels Midland Company built a production facility around it. Other examples are found in this newsletter, with an article on fundamental science benefiting automotive firms’ work to reduce emissions and a video on turning biomass into jet fuel.

As our past successes, current research, and our goals for the future have shown us, together, diversity drives innovation and outcomes.

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