IMNI receives $1.75 million Center for Chemical Innovation grant

October 17, 2012

Researchers at Brown University have been awarded $1.75 million to explore the potential of using carbon dioxide instead of fossil fuels in the production of common industrial chemicals. Advances in this area could help reduce the chemical industry’s carbon footprint and help stabilize production costs in the face of ever increasing fuel prices.

Funding for the project comes from the National Science Foundation’s Centers for Chemical Innovation (CCI) Program, which supports research focused on long-term, fundamental chemical research challenges.

Commodity chemicals, basic chemical ingredients used to make products from plastics to pharmaceuticals, are produced by the millions of tons each year. Production of these chemicals often requires the use of petroleum as a carbon source. The Brown CCI team will search for new catalysts that can activate carbon dioxide as an alternative carbon source, and explore methods of bringing activated carbon dioxide into the chemical production process.

“The goal is to find ways to produce some of the world’s largest-volume chemicals from a sustainable carbon source that the earth not only has in excess but urgently needs to reduce,” said Tayhas Palmore, an engineering professor at Brown and the principal investigator on the grant. “This is a way for us as scientists to begin thinking of how we can do chemistry in more sustainable ways and control costs at the same time. The cost of commodity chemicals is going nowhere but up as long as production is dependent on fossil fuels.”

The CCI team includes Wesley Bernskoetter, Christoph Rose-Petruck, Dwight Sweigart, and Shouheng Sun from the Brown Department of Chemistry, along with Robert Hurt and Andrew Peterson from the Brown School of Engineering. Nilay Hazari, a chemist at Yale University, is also a member of the team.  This interdisciplinary, multi departmental team is administered by Brown's Institute for Molecular and Nanoscale Innovation (IMNI).

If the researchers are successful in developing a promising research direction during the first three years of the grant, they will be eligible to compete for a second-phase grant of $20 million over 5 years.

“At Brown and in the state of Rhode Island, we have a lot of people working on sustainability, the environment and alternative energy, and this project fits very nicely with that effort,” Palmore said. “We have a good group of people who can contribute to different aspects of this challenge and we’re looking forward to getting started.”

For more information, visit the project’s website.