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Institute for Integrated Catalysis

New Lab-Funded Initiative in Chemical Transformations

By Karl Mueller

Chemical Transformations

The Chemical Transformations Initiative has been launched at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory! The CTI is funded through the Laboratory-Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program as a lab-level initiative to develop foundational capabilities at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for chemical conversion processes having minimal or no environmental impact.

To minimize impact, we must develop the thermodynamics, kinetics, and reactor engineering of heterogeneous electrocatalysis and acid-base catalysis required to intensify converting waste carbon into higher energy and higher value products. Transportation sectors that require high energy density—aviation, shipping, and heavy trucking—will then gain local access to high-value fuels with minimal environmental disturbance. The constraints on carbon will require the processes to operate in highly distributed "mini-refineries" that must operate at low temperature and pressure, while being capable of handling complex reactants.

Research thrusts and themes

The CTI combines three research thrusts—electrochemical hydrogen addition, acid-base catalysis, and crosscutting integration activities—to address three overarching themes. The first is to abstract and transfer principles from nature (where enzymes are an exceptional model) to increase the activity of inorganic catalysts by up to 1-million fold. Second, the initiative team is also working to understand and control charge-driven and sterically controlled reactions in condensed phases at electrochemical interfaces. Finally, they will develop plurifunctional catalysts that convert low-grade carbon to energy-dense fuels or high-value products.

Stewarded by two research directorates at PNNL (Physical & Computational Sciences and Energy & Environment), researchers within the CTI are advancing new understanding of catalytic reactions at complex solid-liquid interfaces that will provide the basis to predict, design, and realize catalytic materials and processes with unprecedented enzyme-like activity and control.

The CTI will establish an enduring, world-leading capability for PNNL in condensed-phase low-temperature catalysis. This will position the lab to become an international leader in the basic science and technology required for decentralized processing of stranded resources for producing carbon-neutral fuels and chemicals.


The CTI is led by PNNL scientist John Holladay, who has organized and led several large consortia and multi-partner projects at the lab. His research centers on catalysis, with a primary focus on condensed-phase systems composed of complex oxygenated mixtures. The initiative's chief scientist, Johannes Lercher, is a recognized international leader in heterogeneous catalysis, the author of over 500 papers, and director of the Institute for Integrated Catalysis at PNNL. PNNL scientist Roger Rousseau will undertake the essential task of integrating basic and applied research teams within the CTI.

The entire initiative team met with an external review committee in August and received resounding praise for their proposed integrated research program. This included recognition of the careful and deep planning that developed this initiative from an excellent set of individual ideas to a fully integrated LDRD program.

Complementing chemical conversions research

The CTI fulfills a major goal of PNNL's objective, Chemical Conversions for Carbon-Neutral Energy, where we recognize the need to control catalysts that enable chemical transformations at unprecedented reaction rates, while demonstrating catalyst breakthroughs enabling new conversion platforms with improved efficiency. The transformational science need identified by this laboratory objective, and embraced by the CTI, is to increase the rates of lower temperature catalytic processes to achieve rates and precision of conversion we cannot yet reach with today's technologies and strategies.

The key for the CTI is taking inspiration from biological systems for enabling low-temperature catalysis, thereby connecting basic and applied science through focusing on common problems and teaming across research directorates and the entire laboratory, as well as with important academic, industrial, and national laboratory partners. A perfect example of our teaming efforts is demonstrated by the Energy Everywhere Big Idea, described in the accompanying article by PNNL scientist Robert Weber.

Karl Mueller is Chief Science and Technology Officer for the Physical & Computational Sciences Directorate at PNNL.

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