(6bm) Sustainable Fuel and Chemical Synthesis Via Catalytic Valorization of Abundant and Renewable Resources

Eagan, N., University of Wisconsin-Madison
Research Interests:

Sustainability is a fundamental challenge of our society and will remain one, since we rarely limit our consumption until the impacts of diminishing resources become both clear and present. A sustainable, independent economy operates more effectively when taking advantage of abundant feedstocks including both grown and waste resources such as sugars, lignocellulose, plant/algal oils, industrial off-gases, and commercial wastes. My interest is in understanding the fundamental catalysis behind the conversion of such feedstocks to fuels and chemicals to rationally develop new materials and processes, practically influenced by current and projected demands and constraints imposed by society. My research has thus far targeted production of heavier fuels such as jet and diesel, demand for which is projected to increase while that for lighter fuels such as gasoline is projected to decrease. Commercial technologies for lignocellulose-derived jet and diesel fuels thus far have not been developed, creating a large need for research into this area.

I synthesized a low-cost base metal catalyst for the conversion of sugars to mono-oxygenates which can be used to produce renewable diesel and jet fuels. Previously only precious metal catalysts were used for this reaction. The cobalt catalyst used in this study is over 50 times cheaper than previously used precious metal catalysts and was used to achieve higher mono-oxygenate yields than previously reported. I also found evidence of a possible oligomer-mediated pathway for production of these species.

I have additionally developed a novel technology for the conversion of ethanol to distillate-range fuel molecules. I developed an extensive kinetic model to elucidate the reaction chemistry that occurs in a key stage of this process using experimental data I collected for ethanol condensation over hydroxyapatite. Alcohol structure (i.e. branching and chain length) and undesired olefin production are related to both fundamental catalytic parameters and natural consequences of condensation (e.g. increasing water pressure, decreasing alcohol pressure). This model shows the significant role dehydration of C4+ alcohols plays in limiting alcohol yields at increasing conversions. We have used this model to aid in the development of more selective catalysts and to better understand how this step affects the overall ethanol-to-distillate technology.

Teaching Interests:

As a professor, the greatest impact I can have is in educating and inspiring future generations of scientists and engineers. My passion is fueled by the reward of seeing understanding develop in a student’s eyes, knowing that I was the difference. I am a classically trained Chemical Engineer and am excited to share my passion for chemical engineering with future generations. I am most interested in teaching the following classes: Reaction Kinetics and Reactor Design, Thermodynamics I, Thermodynamics II, and Chemical Engineering Fundamentals. In the classroom I have served as a teaching assistant twice for CBE 250 Process Synthesis and once for CBE 311 Thermodynamics of Mixtures, receiving two department awards for my teaching. I used my discussion sections to reflect upon practices proven to be effective in literature to find myself as a teacher. Here I have been guided by three main philosophies: (1) teaching as a relatable, collaborative facilitator, (2) providing a learning environment that addresses different learning styles and backgrounds while emphasizing collaborative efforts and real-world applications, and (3) rationally designing curriculum based on backward design with clearly-established learning outcomes, feedback-directed adaptation, and holistic examination design. As an instructor I will apply these philosophies in the classroom and continuously reflect upon and refine my teaching to inspire my students to become the next generation of innovators, armed with mindsets and life-long skills that will serve them far beyond the classroom. Additionally I have been a research mentor to four undergraduate students and a high school student. Each of these students learned differently and possessed a unique perspective on research, which has given me an ability to adapt my mentoring style to best benefit my students.