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Three Pitt chemical engineering faculty receive NSF CAREER awards totaling $1.5 million

Research covers C02 conversion, nanoparticles and new 'pseudomaterials'

University of Pittsburgh

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IMAGE: Pictured from left are: John Keith, Giannis Mpourmpakis, Christopher Wilmer. view more

Credit: Swanson School of Engineering/Ric Evans

PITTSBURGH (March 1, 2017) ... For the first time in a funding cycle, three researchers from one University of Pittsburgh department were recognized with the National Science Foundation's most significant award in support of junior faculty. John Keith, Giannis Mpourmpakis and Christopher Wilmer, all assistant professors of chemical and petroleum engineering at Pitt's Swanson School of Engineering received individual NSF CAREER awards, which "recognize faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations."

The three professors received $500,000 each in funding for the five-year awards.

"Receiving an NSF CAREER Award can be one of the most tremendous highlights for any junior faculty member, but it is a true honor for a university to receive three awards within one department," noted Steven R. Little, the William Kepler Whiteford Professor and Department Chair of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering. "What's more, these three researchers are focused on dynamic energy research, and these grants will not only benefit their labs, but also the students they teach and mentor. As an additional component, the grants will enable our students to engage in community outreach and encourage young adults to consider careers in STEM."

The Pitt Chemical and Petroleum Engineering CAREER Awards include:

John A. Keith, Assistant Professor and Inaugural R.K. Mellon Faculty Fellow in Energy
SusChEM: Unlocking local solvation environments for energetically efficient hydrogenations with quantum chemistry

Summary: This project will address the production of carbon-neutral liquid fuels via electrocatalytic reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) to methanol. Its focus will integrate high-level electronic structure theory, molecular dynamics, and machine learning to understand how interactions between solvent molecules, salts, and co-solutes regulate CO2 reduction from greenhouse gas into fuels.

Dr. Keith's graduate and undergraduate students will develop educational modules to engage and excite students in the Pittsburgh Public School District about opportunities in STEM fields, with an emphasis on renewable energy and computational chemistry.

Giannis (Yanni) Mpourmpakis, Assistant Professor
Designing synthesizable, ligand-protected bimetallic nanoparticles and modernizing engineering curriculum through computational nanoscience

Summary: Although scientists can chemically synthesize metal nanoparticles (NPs) of different shapes and sizes, understanding of NP growth mechanisms affecting their final morphology and associated properties is limited. With the potential for NPs to impact fields from energy to medicine and the environment, determining with computer simulations the NP growth mechanisms and morphologies that can be synthesized in the lab is critical to advance NP application.

Because this is a relatively new field, traditional core courses in science and engineering lack examples from the nanotechnology arena. In addition to improving the research, the award will enable Dr. Mpourmpakis and his students to modernize the traditional course of Chemical Thermodynamics by introducing animation material based on cutting-edge nanotechnology examples, and developing a nanoscale-inspired interactive computer game.

Christopher Wilmer, Assistant Professor
Fundamental limits of physical adsorption in porous materials

Summary: The development of new porous materials is critical to improving important gas storage and separations applications, and will have a positive impact on reducing greenhouse gases. This includes the deployment of methane and/or hydrogen gases as alternative fuels, development of new filters for removing trace gaseous contaminants from air, and separation of carbon dioxide from flue gas to mitigate greenhouse emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. Dr. Wilmer's grant will enable his lab to utilize computational methods to probe the limits of material performance for physical adsorption to porous materials. Although past computational screening has suggested physical limits of adsorption capacity for metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), this project will explore the novel use of so-called "pseudomaterials," which represent all potential atomistic arrangements of matter in a porous material.

As part of community outreach, Dr. Wilmer's research group to develop educational movies on the fundamental science of gas adsorption, including those relevant to carbon capture to mitigate climate change.

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