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Four Chemical Engineering Graduate Students Win Kokes Travel Awards

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Audrey Grayson

Four graduate students from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the UH Cullen College of Engineering received prestigious Kokes Awards for the 24th North American Catalysis Society (NACS) meeting in Pittsburgh, Penn. from June 14-19.

The winning students are Hieu Doan, Manjesh Kumar, Yang Zheng and MengMeng Li. Out of 200 student abstracts submitted, only 110 received Kokes Awards.

The Kokes Travel Award program of NACS aims to encourage undergraduate and graduate students to attend and participate in the biennial NACS conference. This award will allow Doan, Kumar, Zheng and Li to travel to the conference free of charge and will cover the costs of their student conference registration fee and hotel accommodations, as well as providing a travel allowance.

The North American Meeting (NAM) of the Catalysis Society is widely recognized as the premier research conference for heterogeneous catalysis, homogeneous catalysis, electro-catalysis and photo-catalysis. Held every other year, NAM draws crowds of more than 1,100 attendees and features plenary lectures, keynote addresses by leaders in the catalysis field, awards and hundreds of oral and poster presentations.

Hieu Doan

Doan, who is advised by chemical engineering professor Lars Grabow, was a co-author on a paper published in the journal Science that revealed the secrets behind gold’s unexpected oxidation activity. In addition to the prestige of publishing this research in a major journal, Doan was one of only five researchers selected to present his poster as Hot Topic Talk at the Gordon Research Conference held in Ventura, Calif.

Now, Doan’s research poster on gold’s oxidation activity will be presented at the upcoming NAM24. “I’m very excited,” Doan said. “It’s an honor to be chosen for this award and I’m really looking forward to meeting with some of my peers and collaborators as well.”

Doan’s poster outlines his research determining why gold, one of the least reactive of all metals, performs so well as a catalyst when oxidizing carbon monoxide (CO) into carbon dioxide (CO2). The collaborators on this project were Bert Chandler, Johnny Saavedra, and Christopher Pursell at Trinity University in San Antonio.

Together, the team discovered that the reason for gold’s unexpected oxidation is water.

Although people have been experimenting with CO oxidation using gold catalysts for nearly 30 years and many researchers have reported that water can change the reaction kinetics quite drastically, Grabow noted that until now no research has ever reported the exact mechanism that his group identified in their Science article.

Doan is currently in his final year as a doctoral student at the University of Houston. After graduation, Doan plans on pursuing a career in the oil and gas industry.

Manjesh Kumar

Kumar has been working closely with advisor Jeff Rimer, Ernest J. and Barbara M. Henley Assistant Professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, for over three years to find better methods for growing zeolites, which are crystalline materials that are used as adsorbents and catalysts in a variety of chemical processes. Zeolites span applications from gasoline production to additives for laundry detergent – not to mention thousands of other commercial and consumer products.

But despite the importance of these materials in many chemical and industrial processes, the ways in which these crystals are synthesized are not well understood. Kumar’s research focuses on finding better ways to rationally design zeolites in order to improve the materials’ performance and reduce the costs and trial-and-error associated with their synthesis.

Kumar has been selected to give an oral presentation on his research at the NAM24 meeting. His research group published a paper titled, “A Facile Strategy to Design Zeolite L Crystals with Tunable Morphology and Surface Architecture,” in the prestigious Journal of the American Chemical Society in 2013. He will presenting some of his recent research work on effective morphology control of commercially relevant zeolites like Mordenite and SSZ-13 and its potential growth mechanism.

“I am really looking forward to the conference,” Kumar said. “We get to meet people who are leaders in our field. That is very exciting.”

Kumar, who is about one year away from graduation, plans to look for a research position in the oil and gas industry after earning his Ph.D. “I would really like to continue on the research path I started here at UH,” Kumar said.

Yang Zheng

Zheng has spent most of his career as a doctoral student working side-by-side with Mike Harold, chair of the chemical and biomolecular engineering department, and Dan Luss, Cullen Professor of Engineering. Harold and Luss are both renowned experts in the field of chemical reaction engineering, one application area being the emissions treatment of engine exhaust  – a fact not at all lost on Zheng.

“I am so proud to work with them,” Zheng said. “I receive great guidance from them as a Ph.D. student.”

So far Yang has three peer-reviewed publications with co-authors Harold and Luss based on his doctoral research in respected catalysis and chemical engineering journals like Applied Catalysis B. Environmental and Chemical Engineering Journal.   One of the benefits of working closely with Harold and Luss is access to the University of Houston’s Center for Clean Engines, Emissions and Fuels, or TxCEF, one of the world’s leading research centers for advancing the discovery and adoption of new engines, fuels and emission reduction technologies.

Zheng’s research focuses on the discovery of novel automotive emission control systems for reducing nitrogen oxide, or NOx, from diesel engine exhaust. Specifically, Zheng is looking into combining two existing NOx reduction technologies to achieve better control of harmful emissions for diesel engines.

So far, results from Zheng’s research has shown that using dual layer catalysts consisting of an LNT catalyst (or lean NOx trap) and an SCR catalyst (or selective catalytic reduction) with rapid hydrocarbon pulsing to effectively reduce NOx in diesel engine emissions with less ammonia slip.

“I’m very excited and very nervous to present this research at NAM24,” Zheng said. “There will be a lot of experts in my field there as well as industry representatives. It’s truly a precious opportunity.”

Zheng plans to graduate this August, at which point he hopes to continue his current research on automotive emission control systems.

MengMeng Li

Li also works closely with faculty advisor Mike Harold to research NOx reduction systems for diesel engines. However, Li’s work focuses more closely on using sequential catalysts to selectively reduce NOx in diesel engine emissions.  The first catalyst enables the generation of ammonia, which is used by the second catalyst to eliminate the NOx.

“The idea is to reduce NOx by 50 percent by lean NOx trap, then to produce as much ammonia as possible for downstream selective catalytic reduction to achieve complete NOx removal,” Li said. This method of reducing NOx emissions in diesel engines could potentially be much more cost effective than current emission reduction systems.

Although Li’s research results have been promising so far, the system she’s studying is still very new and widely debated. “It’s a new technique,” she said, adding that she expects to answer some tough questions during her poster presentation at NAM24. She has one publication from her research with more on the way.

Li has spent the last three years conducting research sponsored by private industry, including Honda Inc., with Harold at TxCEF. “I had the opportunity to work closely with industry throughout this research,” Li said. “It was very helpful to me to interact with industry and learn what their needs are and what their standards are. I think having that experience will help me with the poster presentation.”

Li, who is currently in her third year as a Ph.D. student, said she was pleasantly surprised to receive the Kokes Award so early in her career as a doctoral student. “I really didn’t expect to get it,” she said. “I am honored and very excited.”

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