Research & Innovation

Podkolzin's International Green Chemistry Collaboration Wins NSF Grant

Environmental considerations can be costly, but they are not a luxury in an ecologically aware world; researchers must work urgently to devise new eco-friendly and economical practices for industrial applications.

Dr. Simon Podkolzin and Dr. Henry Du of the Chemical Engineering & Materials Science Department at Stevens have been awarded an NSF grant to establish a collaboration with Eindhoven University in the Netherlands for studying gold and silver catalytic nanoparticles for green chemistry and sustainability. The ultimate aim is to replace current multistage, energy inefficient commercial oxidation processes in the chemical industry, which generate hazardous or undesirable byproducts, with technologies that use oxygen from air with only water as a byproduct.

“This work has important implications not only for the chemical industry but for many diverse areas of science and technology as well,” said Dr. Michael Bruno, dean of the Schaefer School of Engineering and Science. “We expect that the fundamental studies on the interaction between oxygen and metal nanoparticles will also advance, for example, development of sensors, new medications and medical diagnostic procedures.”

The recently published review in Science magazine entitled, “Green Gold Catalysis,” cites a high potential for new processes based on gold nanoparticles for the following large-scale industrial chemicals: gluconic acid, acetic acid and propylene oxide. For example, the current production level of propylene oxide alone in the world is 18 billion pounds per year with a consistent annual growth rate of 5 percent. Since propylene oxide is mostly produced with either the multi-stage chlorohydrin process with salty waste streams and chlorinated byproducts or with another multi-stage energy-inefficient process with an aromatic byproduct, development of new green technologies is urgent and essential for sustainability.

The Stevens and Eindhoven team will investigate oxygen’s interaction with gold and silver nanoparticles at the molecular level in order to elucidate the mechanism of their catalytic activity and widen their range of application. Furthermore, building on this expertise will help researchers to produce nanoparticles with greater catalytic activity, selectivity and stability.

Researchers plan to develop an entirely new methodology of using an optical fiber with immobilized gold and silver nanoparticles both as a chemical reactor and as an ultra-sensitive spectroscopic probe. Such new methodology will have transformative effects in sensors, catalysis and characterization of nanomaterials. The research findings will be readily extendable from gold and silver to other metal nanoparticles.

The collaboration will synergistically combine novel experimental and computational methodologies at Stevens with unique chemical reaction testing capabilities at Eindhoven.

“This project takes advantage of the distinctive capabilities of the collaborating universities in an ambitious and critical research track that creates wonderful learning opportunities for students,” said Du.

Students participating in the project will engage in regular discussions with their counterparts abroad. In addition, they will spend extended time at the collaborating laboratories in the Netherlands with the emphasis on culture, research approaches and the close integration between experimental and computational methods. As part of numerous planned undergraduate and K-12 educational outreach programs, teaching modules on metal nanoparticles for green chemistry and sustainability will be used in a Stevens summer camp for more than 200 high school students from across the U.S.

“The research program with Eindhoven University in the Netherlands will allow us to strengthen significantly our capabilities in synthesis, characterization and testing of materials with metal nanoparticles. In addition, the international collaboration will provide students with skills and knowledge, which they critically need to compete successfully in the international economy of the 21st century,” said Podkolzin.