Enrique Iglesia
Professor of Chemical Engineering

In late 1993, the quality of my research life took a momentary turn for the worse, as I moved with nothing but ideas and a family from the modern facilities in the Exxon Corporate Research Labs to Berkeley. My “research space” in Gilman Hall had all of the modern features and comforts one would have wanted in an office back when it was built in 1917. As laboratory space, however, it was sorely lacking. There were windows that served as exhaust vents, and only after resourceful students arranged several fans and one dehumidifier did it acquire a semblance of environmental control. Needless to say, the range of possible experiments was limited and electronic equipment and the psyche of the students suffered. But our luck was soon to change. Two years later, we moved from our densely packed facilities into the spacious second and third floors of Tan Hall. Our students and their research have never looked back.

Controlling Pore Size
Our research focuses on the basic processes involved in the synthesis of inorganic structures and in their function as heterogeneous catalysts for reactions used in refining, energy conversion, petrochemical synthesis, and environmental protection. Our funding from industry and government is well balanced, reflecting our combination of basic and applied research. We assemble inorganic solids while controlling their pore and atomic connectivity and then characterize their structures with exacting detail, using a variety of spectroscopic methods, some available within our group, but some too large and complex even for Tan Hall (e.g., a synchrotron X-ray source at a nearby farm). We also develop and use spectroscopic and kinetic methods to explore how active sites cycle in these inorganic catalysts–often a few times per second for years, a marvel of recycle in a disposable world.

Educating Scientists
Since 1995, more than forty graduate students and post-doctoral fellows from twelve different countries as well as ten undergraduate students have performed research in our lab, including ten students who have received Ph.D. or M.S. degrees based on research done in these facilities. Today, these scientists use their talents in industry, national labs, and academia throughout the world, not just in the field of catalysis, but also in surface and materials chemistry, in chemical engineering practice, and even in more entrepreneurial endeavors. As they have learned and moved on, they have left their imprint on the College in the form of novel concepts, clever approaches, and experimental infrastructure for others to use.

The research in our lab has led to better catalysts as well as more detailed knowledge of their mechanisms for several important reactions. In a collaboration with Stuart Soled at ExxonMobil, small oxide clusters, often no larger than a typical molecule, are being tested to catalyze reactions that currently use toxic and corrosive liquid acids as catalysts. We have used these small structures as selective oxidation catalysts in our work with Alex Bell, and in the process developed

spectroscopic and titration methods to probe the change in geometry as they perform as catalysts. We have uncovered new routes to cleaner fuels by reacting organosulfur compounds using the hydrocarbons in these fuels instead of using scarce and expensive H2. In collaboration with BP, we developed a selective route to formaldehyde chemical intermediates using dimethylether as the feedstock. In chemistry relevant to the conversion of natural gas to petrochemicals and liquid fuels, we have recently prepared two metal carbide compositions as small clusters; one type shows unprecedented selectivity in methane conversion to aromatics, while the other ranks among the most active catalysts reported for converting methane-derived H2/CO mixtures to large hydrocarbons. Occasionally, we combine such reactions with separations, and our recent synthesis of thin oxide films has led to membranes with H2 permeation rates and selectivities similar to those in Pd foils currently used.

One can only imagine how much of this would have been accomplished in our original “research space” in Gilman Hall.

 

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