Dante’s Catalysis

Filed by Steve Ritter 

When the American Chemical Society’s Brad Miller wrote his Discovery Corps Fellowship proposal for our Brazil trip, he envisioned including students from the U.S. and Brazil in the biofuels research partnership that he hopes to create. As part of his plan, Miller searched abstracts for the ACS national meeting in San Francisco last August to find the “best of biorenewables” presentations made by students.

Working with Paulo C. Vieira, a professor at the Federal University of São Carlos and a past-president of the Brazilian Chemical Society, Miller identified a group of students and invited them to participate in a poster competition. The contest prize was the right to join the U.S. contingent on our current Brazilian adventure. Application packages, including the student’s poster, were judged by a committee made up of Brazilian Chemical Society members.

dante2-small.jpgThe big winner is Dante A. Simonetti, a graduate student in James A. Dumesic’s group at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. On Friday, after being delayed a day because of a missed flight connection, Simonetti came straight from the airport to deliver a short presentation on his research during a biofuels workshop. The event was held at the University of Campinas, Brazil’s second-largest research university after the University of São Paulo. During this session, several members of the U.S. delegation gave an overview of their biofuels-related research, and faculty from Campinas did likewise.

Simonetti discussed catalyst design for low-temperature conversion of biomass-derived feedstocks such as sugar alcohols and polyols to liquid fuels and chemicals (Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2006, 45, 3982). One focus he has is converting glycerol to synthesis gas, then coupling the syngas feedstock to subsequent Fischer-Tropsch chemistry using platinum-based catalysts to produce biodiesel fuel.

Glycerol is a three-carbon by-product of biodiesel production, Simonetti explained. It’s the leftover part of the triglyceride molecule in vegetable oil after the fatty acid chains that make up biodiesel have been esterified. Chemists are eager to find uses for glycerol now that biodiesel production is on the rise, he said. Glycerol also can be made by catalytic hydrogenation of plant sugars, he added.

A similar poster competition will be held later this week during a symposium at the Brazilian Chemical Society national meeting. Members of the U.S. contingent will select a Brazilian student poster during a symposium, with the winner and his or her faculty adviser receiving an expenses-paid trip to present their research in the Fuel Division at the ACS national meeting in Boston in August.

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