Assistant Professor Sarah Perry and Professor William Curtis Conner of the UMass Amherst Chemical Engineering Department have each been awarded individual grants from the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund (ACS PRF). Perry received a two-year, $110,000 ACS PRF Doctoral New Investigator grant for a research project entitled "Designing the Liquid-to-Solid Transition in Polyelectrolyte Complexes.” Meanwhile, Conner was awarded a two-year, $110,000 ACS PRF New Directions grant for a project about “Understanding and Improving the Direct Conversion of Methane to Ethylene.”
As Conner says, "It should be noted that there are fewer than 200 PRF research grants issued in a year."
The ACS PRF Doctoral New Investigator grants program aims to promote the careers of young faculty members by supporting research of high scientific caliber, and to enhance the career opportunities of their undergraduate/graduate students and postdoctoral associates through the research experience.
As Perry explains about her research for the ACS PRF grant, “This proposal aims to use the types of advanced rheological analyses developed by H. Henning Winter’s lab, along with polymers made by the [Todd S.] Emrick group in Polymer Science, to better understand the molecular level details of how materials resulting from the electrostatic complexation of oppositely-charged polymers form either liquids or solids.”
Perry adds that a grand challenge in synthetic materials design is the determination of methods whereby a simple set of components can be engineered to exhibit a wide range of mechanical properties, which is the case with this study.
“While these types of liquid complexes, termed complex coacervates, are common in everyday life in products such as shampoo, cosmetics, and processed food, solid complexes have been resistant to use,” says Perry. “By better understanding the ways in which we can control the liquid or solid state of these materials, we will enable their processing and use for a wide range of applications.”
The ACS PRF New Directions (ND) grants program provides funds to scientists and engineers with limited—or even no—preliminary results for a research project they wish to pursue, who intend to use the PRF-driven preliminary results to seek continuation funding from other agencies. ND grants are to be used to illustrate proof of concept/feasibility. Accordingly, they are to be viewed as seed money for new research ventures.
Conner says that his research could have a large impact on the natural gas industry: “The thrust of this proposal is to understand the mechanistic sequence by which methane is activated selectively and combines with another methane to produce ethylene as a primary product with aromatics as co-products along with hydrogen. While this [process] was only disclosed in the last year, the process must be confirmed precisely and the mechanism needs to be understood. We will employ isotopic and in situ spectroscopic studies to investigate this mechanism.”
Conner adds that “This new direction for the developing natural gas industry is certainly transformatory.” The U.S. is now the largest producer of natural gas in the world.
Conner’s research will also study the potential enhancement of this direct catalytic conversion of methane to ethylene by the heating of the process by microwave radiation. The use of microwave heating could increase the ethylene selectivity and energetic efficiency as well as make the process more practical by reducing the overall reactor temperature.
“This new process direction would potentially represent a transition from petroleum conversion,” says Conner, “to the dominant polyolefin monomer by substituting the monomer source with a natural-gas-derived feed.” (December 2015)