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.
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.