Peter Stair, Northwestern professor of chemistry and faculty member of the Center for Catalysis and Surface Science (CCSS) at the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN), has been selected as the recipient of the 2017 Herman Pines Award. Named for Northwestern chemist Herman Pines (1902-1996), the award is given annually by the Catalysis Club of Chicago and Honeywell-Universal Oil Products (UOP) and honors exceptional research in the field of catalysis. Stair is the third Northwestern faculty member to receive the award since its inception in 1999.
“This award means a lot. I admire so many of the great scientists who have won previously, and I’m honored to be counted among them,” says Stair.
Catalysis, a science focused on improving the efficiency of chemical reactions, has a profound impact on the energy and environmental footprint of industrial and consumer products—from plastics to pharmaceuticals, solvents to soap, and fuels to food.
Stair was selected for the award based on recent research related to the fundamental understanding and applications in the field of synthesis and characterization of supported metal/metal oxide catalysts. Specifically, Stair is borrowing lessons learned from electronic materials fabrication and applying them to catalyst production.
An electronic component such as a microchip is typically assembled by stacking individual layers of electronic material. The interaction between these layers makes the component work. The idea for the research, which is a joint effort between Northwestern and Argonne National Lab, arose during a casual conversation with Argonne colleague Jeff Elam.
“Jeff was setting up electronic material fabrication equipment at Argonne, and we got to talking about using layering as a methodology in catalysis—something that had never been done before,” Stair says. “The idea is to stack atomic layers of specific catalytic compositions. When you do this, it turns out that you get some really special structures and functions out of the catalyst.”
When it comes to catalysis, such breakthroughs can open a whole new world of chemical reaction processing.
“Take for example a catalyst that involves aluminum oxide and palladium metal. When we run this reaction using a traditional setup—a layer of aluminum oxide decorated with palladium metal nano-particles—it’s terrible. The catalyst dies in about ten minutes, and the byproducts—mostly carbon—aren’t useful,” says Stair.
But by adding an additional layer of aluminum oxide on top of the same catalyst and adding some heat, Stair is able to transform its performance.
“When you add this overcoat and heat it up, it generates channels down to the palladium metal nano-particles,” he says. “Now the catalyst is excellent. It runs for days. Its products are incredibly useful, and it doesn’t produce any carbon.”
The reason for the improvement? The atoms on the surface of the palladium metal nano-particles have different geometries, only some of which produce the desired chemical reaction. Stair theorizes that the overcoat and the pores that are created preferentially eliminate the unfavorable geometries.
Herman Pines left a foundational scientific legacy comprised of 250 publications in the scientific literature and 145 U.S. patents. He followed in the footsteps of his colleague and mentor Vladimir Ipatieff, a chemist at UOP and Northwestern who has been widely dubbed as the “Father of Catalysis.” Pines was the first Ipatieff Professor at Northwestern, a prestigious position named for his associate. Although Pines had retired by the time Stair began his career at Northwestern in 1977, he remained as a presence on campus until the mid-1990s.
“I remember seeing Herman regularly at our informal weekly catalysis seminars,” Stair says. “He’d ask questions of those who were presenting. He’d press his colleagues. I learned so much from Herman just hearing him speak and being around him. This award is a true honor.”