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Analytical Chemistry

Jennifer Holmgren

UOP research director looks to new tools and novel ideas to boost innovation

by Mitch Jacoby
January 26, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 4


Crying babies and noisy neighbors keep some folks awake at night. But not Jennifer S. Holmgren. "Thinking about sustainability and the growth of the chemical industry is what keeps me up," she says.

The chemical industry is mature and tightly focused on productivity improvements and cost cutting, Holmgren explains. "People focus on saving a penny here and a penny there or using one fewer person in this area or that one. But no one is going to cost-cut their way to prosperity," she asserts.

Certainly, penny-pinching can improve the bottom line this year and next, Holmgren acknowledges. "But the real value is in dreaming the big dream," she insists. "Our industry is sitting on the flat part of the innovation curve. We need to figure out how to get off the curve--to boost the level of innovation and create high-value products."

"People focus on saving a penny here and a penny there or using one fewer person in this area or that one. But no one is going to cost-cut their way to prosperity."

As director of exploratory and fundamental research at UOP in Des Plaines, Ill., Holmgren, a chemist by education who's been at UOP since 1987, is surrounded by people who help work out innovative solutions to science and engineering problems. The company develops catalytic and other types of chemical technologies for licensing in the oil-refining industry, petrochemical sector, and related areas. But even with sharp coworkers nearby, "getting off the curve" isn't so easy.

UOP's idea, according to Holmgren, is to develop novel scientific and technical capabilities or tools that, in her words, function as "enablers for growth." The list includes four items with shorthand labels: combinatorial chemistry, advanced characterization, new materials, and modeling.

"The benefit of having new tools is that they allow you to view the world differently," she says. "If you have a new way of looking at things, you won't always be trying to solve problems the same old way." In Holmgren's view, arming scientists with novel tools and capabilities will stimulate them to come up with innovative ideas and approaches to solving technical problems.

Illustrating her point in connection with combinatorial and high-throughput methods, Holmgren draws upon an example in catalyst development. A UOP scientist prepared and evaluated 270 sample catalysts in three years using conventional synthesis and pilot-plant testing techniques, she relates. In contrast, using combinatorial methods, the same researcher was able to prepare and test 512 candidate catalysts in just five weeks.

"But combi is not just about the numbers," Holmgren stresses. "It has allowed us to miniaturize the work process while still carrying out high-fidelity experiments."

When you do one experiment at a time, you tend to proceed conservatively, she says. "But when you're planning 48 experiments at a time, you begin to think out of the box." For example, researchers can vary parameters widely (not incrementally) and simultaneously, and also be daring enough to move around the periodic table. That type of experimentation, in which large areas of "parameter space" can be explored quickly, can be designed to provide input to modeling techniques to develop new predictive capabilities.

For the catalyst researcher, the new way of thinking about experiments led to a breakthrough. Unlike the 270 conventionally prepared catalysts that produced no leads, the high-throughput experiments resulted in several promising leads, one of which led to a new paraffin isomerization catalyst that just recently was put to use in a commercial plant.

The ability to examine a library of materials using high-throughput spectral techniques to identify promising samples is one of the keys to using combinatorial methods effectively, Holmgren remarks. "It leads to structure-function models, which means generating knowledge--not just data. That's the power of combi: coupling the making and the testing with characterizing and modeling."

But high-throughput screening is not enough. Advanced characterization techniques, such as high-resolution electron microscopy and in situ X-ray absorption and vibrational spectroscopy methods that enable researchers to study catalysts under reaction conditions and in their working state, also figure prominently into UOP's ideas about tools that enable growth. Holmgren notes that UOP has been filling its toolbox with an assortment of research methods that enhance understanding of reaction kinetics, intermediates, and mechanisms. "Our objective is to know what's going on at a catalyst's active site at the atomic level," she says.

Detailed understanding of a catalytic reaction mechanism, in principle, goes hand in hand with the ability to modify catalysts and prepare customized materials. Those kinds of advances can also help an industry "get off the curve," Holmgren remarks. Pointing to the case of fluid catalytic cracking (FCC) as an example, Holmgren notes that when synthetic Y-zeolite was added to standard amorphous FCC catalysts, the activity was so greatly improved that FCC reactors needed to be redesigned to handle the boost in performance.

Holmgren has plenty of other examples and sees even more opportunities to use creative thinking to solve problems related to air, water, and chemical feedstocks. "There still are tremendous challenges ahead of us, and our industry can make significant contributions. As an industry, we just need to say, 'Yes, we can still be innovative.' "



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