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George A. Olah Award In Hydrocarbon Or Petroleum Chemistry

by Mitch Jacoby
January 23, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 4

Credit: Sikander Hakim
James A. Dumesic, the Steenbock professor of engineering and the Michel Boudart Professor of chemical and biological engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison
Credit: Sikander Hakim

Sponsored by the George A. Olah Award Endowment

In the field of biomass conversion, few researchers are better known or more highly respected than James A. Dumesic, the Steenbock Professor of Engineering and the Michel Boudart Professor of Chemical & Biological Engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

The field’s objective can be stated simply: to transform biological materials—typically derived from plants—into valuable chemicals and fuels. Discovering the catalytic processes and reaction conditions needed to efficiently drive those chemical conversions, however, is enormously challenging.

The biomass field has recently attracted many researchers. But according to catalysis experts such as University of California, Berkeley, chemical engineering professor Enrique Iglesia, Dumesic’s contributions are unparalleled. “Dumesic’s group has made the most significant conceptual and practical contributions to biomass conversion to fuels, chemicals, hydrogen, and synthesis gas,” Iglesia asserts. It is for these groundbreaking contributions that Dumesic is being honored.

In some of Dumesic’s earliest work in this area, he and his group demonstrated that light alkanes and hydrogen could be produced from biomass-derived oxygenates including glucose, sorbitol, and glycerol via a process known as aqueous-phase reforming. The Wisconsin team also showed that by tailoring the reaction conditions, heavier alkanes—mainly butane, pentane, and hexane—could be produced from sorbitol.

Moving toward higher-molecular-weight products, Dumesic’s team developed C–C bond-forming methods for converting renewable sources, such as xylose and fructose, to liquid alkanes in the C7 to C15 range. The process includes acid-catalyzed dehydration followed by aldol condensation and involves a key intermediate: hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF).

Recognizing that HMF is a versatile “platform” chemical—it can be used to synthesize solvents, fuels, and monomers for polymer production—Dumesic devised a high-yield method for producing HMF by selectively dehydrating fructose. He then followed that study with another showing that liquid fuels can be made from fructose in a biphasic reactor by way of a process that avoids the expensive separation steps typically needed to produce liquid fuels.

In other examples of the Dumesic group’s biomass work, the team developed methods for making liquid alkanes from glycerol by way of a process involving catalytic conversion to synthesis gas (H2 and CO) and Fischer-Tropsch C–C coupling chemistry.

They also engineered methods for catalytically converting sugars and polyols to various classes of hydrocarbons. For example, the method can be tuned to produce branched hydrocarbons and aromatic compounds used in gasoline, or less branched and longer-chain hydrocarbons of the type needed for diesel and jet fuels.

Dumesic, 62, earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1971 from UW Madison and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Stanford University in 1974. After conducting research in France and Russia, he was appointed as an assistant professor of chemical engineering at UW Madison in 1976.

Dumesic is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and has received numerous honors including the Heinz Heinemann Award in Catalyst Science & Technology of the International Association of Catalysis Societies and the ACS Gabor A. Somorjai Award for Creative Research in Catalysis. He has published more than 300 scholarly papers and holds 12 patents.

Dumesic will present the award address before the ACS Division of Catalysis Science & Technology.


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