(56n) Carboxylation of Propylene Oxide to Propylene Carbonate: Kinetics and Catalysis

Authors: 
Bobba, P., University of Kansas
Isaac Asimov said: “Science can amuse and fascinate us all, but it is engineering that changes the world.”

Eminent chemical engineers like George Davis, Carl Bosch, and Dermot Manning offer vast proof of Asimov’s insight. Their discoveries and methodologies have truly shaped the world we live in, mostly for better but also for worse. For example, growing up in Hyderabad, India, I witnessed first-hand how industrial technologies can harm the environment. A river walk park where I played as a child used to be known for its beauty and boat rides, but now wreaks with a terrible odor from industrial pollution. Such harmful side effects of chemical manufacturing are not intended. Rather, as Paul Anastas of Yale University said, “well-meaning people often do right things but do them wrong.”

This is my mission as a chemical engineer: reinvent technologies for a sustainable future. I have always been enthralled by creative innovations and technologies. But what motivates me the most is the opportunity to make a difference in the world.

On my path to become a chemical engineer, I gained experiences as an intern and as a process engineer. My internship at Nuclear fuel complex, India was especially valuable. It gave me the opportunity to interact with plant managers and see how they struggle with the challenges of day-to-day operations. I also interacted with the plant control division, which monitors critical parameters to ensure safety and efficiency, helping to sample and measure the input and output streams from a unit operation as well as the plant. This data was used to increase plant efficiency and also reduce the waste products in the outlet streams. This project boosted my curiosity to explore solutions for the challenges in constructing and automating chemical plants. It also kindled my interest computer-controlled chemical manufacturing.

Working as a process engineer in Larsen & Turbo, India, a multinational E&PC company, exposed me to the global commercialization of engineering technologies and real-time challenges faced in the construction and start-up of a plant. As part of a team of design engineers, I helped develop innovative solutions to tackle various problems and created engineering design packages for several process treatment units and equipment for the oil and gas industry. These tasks enhanced my knowledge of process flow diagrams PFDs and P&IDs, and simulation software packages such as Aspen, Promax, HTRI. One of the projects I worked on was an inter-company collaborative global project where my team was responsible for designing 100 heat exchangers within a short span of a week. This challenging task improved my time management skills, ability to work under pressure and be motivated in adverse situations. I also had the opportunity to interact with safety and financial departments to seek inputs for economical improvements to plant safety via Hazop studies and improved design for plant unit operations. These responsibilities and opportunities not only enhanced my chemical engineering skills but also my communication and team work skills.

During this period, I collaborated with the safety team to develop a report for the air and water emission standards of various countries to prepare our company for potentially stricter emission standards in the future. My role focused on modifying the current process plant simulations for adapting or adopting new cost-effective technologies. This prompted me to sift through the literature to find innovations in catalysis, solvents, and distillation technologies that our company could adopt. I was struck by how catalysis has dramatically influenced many chemical processes, such as hydroformylation, oxidation, hydrogenation, and polymerization, by minimizing or eliminating wasteful byproducts, increasing process efficiency and improving economic viability.

Because of the critical role that catalysis plays in chemical reactions in terms of sustainability, safety and profitability, I became inspired to pursue doctoral research in this field. I chose to work at the University of Kansas (KU), which has renowned experts in the field at KU’s Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis (CEBC). This major life decision took me thousands of miles from home to a college town in the heartland of the U.S.A. that could not be more different than my hometown in India.

I am currently in my 4thyear of doctoral study, and my research focuses on developing processes to synthesize industrial chemicals sustainably and safely. My main project addresses the synthesis of cyclic carbonates from epoxides and carbon dioxide in sustainable and economically profitable manner. Since carbon dioxide is a very stable molecule, it is extremely challenging to activate and convert it at ambient to low temperatures and pressures. Therefore, several catalyst systems have been studied to promote activity and selectivity of this reaction. My goal is to develop new catalysts or use solvents for process intensification and to perform kinetics and mechanistic modeling studies to understand the reaction mechanism. To achieve this, I screened several homogeneous and heterogeneous catalysts and polar solvents. For further studies, ammonium-based salts and alcohols as solvents were tested. This led me to explore how carbon dioxide affects these systems as gas-expanded liquids by performing phase equilibrium studies. I also collaborated with computational chemists to better understand the molecular interactions in the gas-expanded liquid phase, and I conducted kinetic studies on these systems for in-depth analysis of the reaction mechanism, which also involved characterization studies with FTIR and UV-VIS.

Working on this project, not only enhanced my technical and teamwork skills; it also helped me to better understand the intricate details and planning required for process development. The University of Kansas recognized my work and awarded me the “Graduate Student Sustainability Leadership Award” in 2018.

Other aspects of my doctoral research have involved synthesizing nanocatalysts with different structures to analyze the effect of structure on catalyst performance. This study expanded my knowledge of several material characterization tools such as SEM, TEM, and XRD. It also gave me the chance to assist with a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation, providing data to support the proposed research in natural gas reforming with mono and bimetallic catalyst systems. I have mentored and trained dozens of undergraduate students. Furthermore, I am also committed to laboratory safety, and have volunteered for two years to serve on the CEBC’s Lab Safety Committee where I conducted lab inspections and presented several training sessions on lab safety.

As a graduate student at CEBC, I interact often with industrial professionals affiliated with the center. These experiences have raised my global awareness and peeked my interest in industrial jobs. I also serve as a teaching assistant, assisting with several undergraduate and graduate courses and leading large discussion sessions for 100+ student groups. This broadened my spectrum of interaction with students from multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural backgrounds. These opportunities not only enhanced my problem solving, team player and interpersonal skills but also my mentoring skills.

With my technical background, teaching skills, and interpersonal communication, I am ready to take the next step on my journey to becoming a chemical engineer and making a difference in the world—for the better.

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