NSF CAREER award supports Schwartz’s research on the Lebedev Process

A deeper insight into the chemical processes with which various goods are made from biomass can help manufacturers use them more efficiently and thus increase production. Thomas Schwartz aims to unravel the insides of a common method of making a rubber compound called butadiene, which is supported by the National Science Foundation.

The Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Maine received an NSF CAREER Award of $ 513,995 to advance his ongoing analysis of the Lebedev Process. The well-known multi-stage chemical reaction is used to produce butadiene from ethanol obtained from biomass. However, little research has been done on the Lebedev process at the molecular level.

Understanding the intricacies of the process would help researchers develop new catalysts necessary for the chemical reactions to make commodities from petroleum and biomass that would increase butadiene yield. The advent of improved catalysts could help fuel the development of bio-based, renewable chemicals.

“Synthetic rubber is used in all types of consumer goods, from car tires to paper coatings. Our goal is to enable the production of synthetic rubber from renewable resources,” says Schwartz.

The new study builds on previous research by Schwartz and his UMaine Catalysis Group. He founded the group in 2015 to study the intricacies of catalysts and their role in chemical reactions to make fuels and chemicals from carbon-based raw materials.

Hussein Abdulrazzaq, former Ph.D. The student from Schwartz’s lab, who graduated last year, previously led a group of colleagues and researchers in a study into the first step of the Lebedev process: converting ethanol to acetaldehyde and ethylene using magnesia-silica as a catalyst. The team discovered the mechanism that converts ethanol to acetaldehyde and ethylene and was the first researcher to locate and report it for this catalyst.

Schwartz’s latest study, funded by the NSF CAREER Award, will examine the chemical mechanism by which butadiene is made from ethanol. UMaine’s chemical engineer also wants to deduce the point in the reaction where carbon-carbon bond formation takes place. According to him, “the literature is in conflict with the (carbon-carbon) coupling mechanism and the nature of the active sites required that we are trying to clarify.”

To test the hypothesis, Schwartz and his team must first identify the chemical steps in the Lebedev process that affect the production of butadiene by measuring reaction rates using magnesia-silica model catalysts. Researchers then need to use spectroscopy to characterize the model catalysts and determine the requirements for making butadiene.

The end result of this research will be a series of descriptions at the molecular level of how the reactions take place on the industrial catalysts. This kind of description is important in the development of next generation Lebedev catalysts.

“Our approach is to carefully measure the reaction kinetics and use this knowledge to gain insights into chemical reactions at the molecular level,” says Schwartz.

Although magnesia-silica plays a vital role in the Lebedev process, it is complex and produces small amounts of butadiene, a problem when trying to expand the market. Schwartz’s research will provide other scientists with the information they need to develop new catalysts that can be used in the process that can produce more butadiene than magnesia-silica.

The study will also help Schwartz and his colleagues create new course modules on bio-based chemical production and catalytic reactor design for undergraduate students, as well as a module on converting biomass to chemicals for high school students and the general public.

“An important part of our work is not only to improve our understanding of chemical processes, but also to train the next generation of engineers and scientists who can continue this work in the future,” says Schwartz.


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