Catalyzing the Future? My experience in the Chemical Engineering Lab

Towards the end of Summer 2019, I had the privilege to intern and conduct research at the Chemical Engineering Lab of Prof. Ahmet Erhan Aksoylu at Boğaziçi University, Istanbul. This experience was a key point in my discovery of my role in the field of Science, and a verification that my multidisciplinary approach to the questions of the world would allow me a unique perspective into possible answers. 

The lab investigated Catalytic Chemistry, and in particular, heterogeneous catalysis for the conversion of strong contributors of Global Warming into useful chemical precursors and a friendly source of fuel, Hydrogen gas, for the growing energy demands of the modern world. Although experimented on, through my interest in Sustainability, I have come to the realization that in addition to implementation of sustainable power sources such as Solar Panels and Lithium Ion Batteries to store them, commential implementation of radically different methods to produce and store energy should also be researched and commercialized, not only searching for cost and energy efficiency, but also environmental friendliness, non-toxic, non-flammable, with reduced Health Damages, and perfect life-cycle returns. I was also inspired to think of this through my experience in Sustainable Product Design and Innovation Ecosystem course of Dr. Ramon Sanchez, a researcher and inventor, who knows how to do business, but also has adopted the momentum to do it sustainably and encourage others to do so too. 

 An example to radical endeavors in the field of energy I mentioned above that gets me very excited is a “>1-volt, ultra-long lifetime aqueous organic redox flow battery at pH 12”, an Alkaline Quinone Flow Battery with Long Lifetime at pH 12, devised by Michael J. Aziz, Michael P Marshak, and Roy G. Gordon and their team of other fellows and students, dedicated to shaping science for the betterment of Human Environment relations. When I look at the paper, and realize the diversity of the team in Scientific Background including Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Harvard University, Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and ongoing students of Harvard College itself, and the cultural and ethnic diversity in the team, I also realize that my interest for combining disciplines and cultures around a key problem, although rarely well executed, is not unrealistic. So, this is my first step into my goal in achieving a similar environment where we smile, and make others smile with scientific research of global significance. The investigation that the assistants in the lab, the professor and I performed also directly complements their work, as well as many others such as the University of Michigan Energy Institute who performs research into new battery and transportation technologies.

The research in the catalytic chemistry lab I interned at focused particularly on the production of the fuel and other helpful precursors, and the engineering of the catalyst to do so. The reactions at question were the catalytic reforming, or Dry Reforming (DRM) of Methane (CH4) and Carbon Dioxide (CO2), two of the infamous culprits of Global Warming, which absorb Infrared emission through their appropriately tuned oscillating covalent bonds, holding in heat from the Sun, that would otherwise be radiated into the Space. This would not have been a problem if the balance of the rates of creation and consumption of these gases had not been compromised by short term industrial planning and lack of protective policies. DRM produces Carbon Monoxide (CO), and Hydrogen Gas (H2). Our hydrocarbon precursor and gas fuel. Then, we can take another catalyst where we can use the CO produced and react it further with Water Vapor to produce even more Hydrogen through a reaction referred to called Water Gas Shift, producing CO2 and some more hydrogen.

As I usually like to do, I collaborated with another High Schooler, but one who wanted to focus on the business side of the vast field, so fulfilling my interest in encountering a different perspective as well. Initially, we were lectured by the professor in concepts related to rate, equilibrium point, metallic and covalent bonding, which we had learned in school and over my courses Chemistry in Context in 2018 at Harvard, and Principles of Organic Chemistry in 2019 at Harvard, spanning 14 weeks in total. We had done 9 labs of 5 hours each during the latter, but it was very satisfying to apply my knowledge into an area of study in the industry. I was very surprised to be able to comprehend Chemistry and Engineering jargon at once, and felt closer than ever to the “real world” and being able to touch the hearts and lives of many, to which I seldom feel near in the usual school atmosphere.

During my internship, I was introduced to many perspectives into the research in the lab. After the theory, we met  young assistants in the lab. Catalysts were produced by depositing metals onto a carrier material, all of which was important for the working of the catalyst. I was lucky to follow the specific synthesis of SBA-15, a useful support material, which was a very fine powder a result of mixing a gooey gel called P-123, some acid, a few more reagents and pressure under a special vessel. I could not stop my curiosity, and looking at the chemical mechanisms involved online, I was again surprised to realize I could in fact understand how it worked. 

We were also introduced to “reactor” setups used to test the catalysts produced in a lab scale before they would possibly be implemented in the industry. The reactors were made out of stainless steel sheets and tubes, I was told were very expensive and imported. (Which made me think of the possibility of an industrial growth for metal workers on the side industrial chain to move on to through fiscal incentives to produce lab equipment for example instead of exhaust pipes for cars, they could do pipes for gas transfer). Some of the parts were improvised from what was available, since the university did not have infinite budget and they needed to buy other precision gas control and measurement of the equipment that was indispensable for the development and the study of the catalysts themselves. This made me realize that, once someone was determined to do science, any sort of economic instability or lack of funds, although requiring more effort and time, would not be a right excuse and a scientist needed to persevere. The little improvised reactors and the financially wise attitude was due to supply future aspiring scientists with the infrastructure to achieve something much more than we right now may have been able to do. This should be a scientists legacy.

Some of the precision equipment we got to work on were Mass Flow Controller and Mass Spectrograms. After being warned about the safety hazards of having explosive methane gas under 200 atmoıspheres of pressure in huge metal cylinders, we helped with the calibration oıf Mass Flow Meters, which were responsible for the precise dispensing of a volume of gas per unit time through the chamber with the catalyst inside. The factory would claim a certain level of precision, but the calibration would in most cases be inadequate. These tools were also gas specific, so one machine could only be used for a single type of molecule. The way to adapt to both of these difficulties was to spend a bit of time making a graph which would tell us which value to enter into the machine to get the gas flow we actually wanted when compared with what the MFC actually gave us. 

We used a “soap bubble” machine, which was composed of a squeezable balloon at the bottom of a simple glass pipe. You would set the flow and the machine to 0.5ml/s for example, then you would squeeze the bulb to produce a circular bubble spanning the width of the glass tube that would slowly start travelling upwards. Then, we would count how many millimeters bubbles would move up per unit time, and enter it into a spreadsheet. For example, when we would enter 10, it would actually move 15. When we gathered enough data, we would draw a graph with a best fit line, to produce a function which would later adjust for any specific value of gas flow we wanted for any gas. It was extremely surprising to see how a chronometer, a soap bubble and a glass pipe was able to race with complicated and expensive gas equipment with special filaments and precision temperatures inside. It was very inspiring, and for once, I was applying the graphing skills I have obtained from my school courses in a real life setting. 

However, the more special part of the experience for me was when we moved on to the assessment of a developed catalyst. A few metals, where the gas molecules can partially bond onto due to delocalized electrons and metal cations had been disposed onto a support material, but nobody was clear on how it worked. There are multiple steps to how a molecule bonds to a surface to make very hard to break bonds easier to break under preferred temperatures and pressures. One of these metals on the surface could be moving it to a certain transition state, and it could slide over the surface to move to another surface on the catalyst which would complete the transition. We could observe the change in gas amounts, bonded on the surface and in the air through Fourier IR, and Mass Spectrography which would give us an idea of how the steps in the mechanism might be, my removing elements from the catalyst to see how it affected, for example if we removed Platinum, would it get stuck at a certain step? Not work at all?

Through my basic knowledge of principles of Organic Chemistry I was able to guess how the proposed mechanism might be, but there was almost no way I would be correct, right? I tried to ask if it was to the assistant, but he was not able to understand some of the terminology I tried to use for molecular orbital theory, arrow pushing, electron pushing etc. which was a little disappointing. Then, I met a student that was visiting from Organic Chemistry focus, and he was able to understand me, and I was actually being reasonable and able to apply my logic into the real world, and my guesses were not that off! This made me also realize, however, that maybe Chemical Engineering was not right for me, as I had suspected, or just focusing on that, for me, would not be enough, as students had focused too much on how the machines worked, and overlooked how the molecules interacted on a quantum level, which was actually crucial for how catalysts functioned! Later, I spoke with the professor, who also taught me how the proposed mechanism worked in a simple way, and pointed out my weaknesses and mistakes, which I was very happy to correct. Again, my interdisciplinary approach in science would prove helpful. 

In addition to this, we learned how to operate a Rigaku X-ray Diffraction (XRD) machine, used to visualize crystal structure in a miniscule scale, from concrete to catalyst surfaces. We measured a pure table salt and potassium chloride sample, and I was surprised to see it worked. We also looked into more specific tools, which used lasers for absorption and many more.

During all of this, the professor was also experimenting with an idea he had, where he wanted to make open lectures for people of interest into the topic from the public, where he would get science closer to the people. This made me incredibly excited, as I had spent a chunk of my childhood watching lectures from The Royal Science Institution and universities like MIT, full of fun science demonstrations from explosions to rocketry. This also fit into my goal of sharing interest and love for science, and facilitating a safe and enjoyable environment where young people could ask questions and just have fun while learning science, instead of being stuck with theoretical and superficial school courses. I was very proud to be a part of the beginning of this important change in Turkey.

From my experience, I was also able to come up with questions of my own, that I could perform research during my professional career. For example. You can use special molecules of Boron, which is the most abundant in the world in Turkey, and falsely believed to be not very useful, to store this gas as a useful, easier and safer to transport but sadly very toxic, which could be researched further for safety and possible use. In addition to this, this made me think of other important issues related with ecology, sustainability, mainly the problem of energy storage once more, but I realized I was not very far from the scientific and cultural environment and was already able to take part in it with a unique perspective. I cannot wait to be a part of the creative, cultural and exciting science ecosystem that is University.


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