Jingguang Chen | Impacting Alternative Energy Research
Thayer Lindsley Professor of Chemical Engineering
—Photo by Eileen Barroso
Catalysts are the workhorses of chemical transformations. They are able to accelerate a chemical reaction without being consumed and make it possible to synthesize new materials and separate valuable components. The applications of catalysts are vast, many of which impact our daily lives. With them, we are able to convert crude oil into gasoline, reduce chemical emissions, and create polymers that are used to produce paint, textiles, pharmaceuticals, and biomedical devices. They are also key to advancing alternative energy research by making it possible to turn abundant and inexpensive resources into fuel.
One such resource is hydrogen. Not only is it the most plentiful element in the universe, it is also high in energy and produces no pollution when burned. When combined with oxygen, it can produce electricity, heat, and water in a fuel cell. But because hydrogen is always combined with other elements on earth (such as water, which is a combination of hydrogen and oxygen), one way to produce hydrogen is by separating it from those other elements via electrolysis. Currently, platinum is used as the catalyst in this electrolysis process, but its rarity makes hydrogen production very expensive.
“My goal is to contribute to cost-effective alternative energy by identifying catalysts that can substantially reduce the expense of producing alternative fuels,” says Jingguang Chen,Thayer Lindsley Professor of Chemical Engineering at the Engineering School. Chen has made pioneering contributions to the understanding and use of novel catalysts, specifically delving into the physical and chemical properties of bimetallic and metal carbide catalysts. His research has inspired fundamental studies in catalytic and fuel cell processes, including the exploration of ways to reduce the use of platinum in the catalysis process to produce hydrogen.
“Bimetallic catalysts, which are formed by combining atoms of two metals, possess unique physical, chemical, and electronic properties. We are exploring how we can employ bimetallic catalysts along with metal carbides in order to help produce hydrogen more efficiently and with lower cost,” he says.
Chen's group also applies advanced synchrotron techniques to identify and characterize reactive species in catalysts. These techniques help researchers across the United States investigate the use of less expensive, more stable catalytic materials for applications ranging from fuel cells to biomass utilization. His monograph on synchrontron investigations of metal oxides, nitrides, carbides, and sulfides remains the seminal study in this area.
“Synchrotron spectroscopies demonstrate unique advantages over conventional techniques,” he explains. “They are able to help us probe the structure of matter and safely measure structural, electronic, and catalytic properties under actual reaction conditions.”
Chen joined the Engineering School in 2012 from the University of Delaware, where he was the Claire D. LeClaire Professor of Chemical Engineering and the co-director of the Department of Energy’s Energy Frontier Research Center. He co-founded, and is the principal investigator of, the Synchrotron Catalysis Consortium at the National Synchrotron Light Source, Brookhaven National Laboratory. The consortium, the first of its kind in the United States, is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy to promote synchrotron research by the nation's catalysis community. In addition to serving on a wide range of professional committees, he is the director-at-large for the North American Catalysis Society and serves as the chair of the Catalysis Division of American Chemical Society.
BA, Nanjing University, China, 1982; PhD, University of Pittsburgh, 1988
-by Amy Biemiller