Israel E. Wachs, a world-renowned expert in using optical spectroscopy to investigate the fundamentals of metal-oxide catalysis, has received Germany’s Humboldt Research Award for senior scientists.
The prestigious award recognizes lifetime achievements by researchers who have made significant impacts on their disciplines. Winners spend up to a year working with colleagues in Germany.
Wachs will collaborate with Robert Schlögl, director of the Fritz Haber Institute and of the newly planned Max Planck Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion in Berlin. They hope to develop new technologies based on catalysts, which change the rate of chemical reactions without being consumed, and have energy and chemical applications.
The researchers are interested in two methods of producing hydrogen—the water-gas shift reaction and photocatalytic splitting of water. Hydrogen, a clean fuel, can power engines or fuel cells without emitting greenhouse gases. Fuel cells convert fuel to energy at least 50 percent more efficiently than conventional power engines. Hydrogen is now produced by steam reforming of methane, a high-temperature, energy-intensive process.
“The economical production of hydrogen is a grand challenge in science and technology,” says Wachs, the G. Whitney Snyder Professor of Chemical Engineering and director of Lehigh’s Operando Molecular Spectroscopy and Catalysis Research Laboratory. “Its success will change the energy landscape of the world.”
Schlögl called Wachs a “pioneer” in characterizing the molecular structure of catalysts and designing materials with wide-ranging applications.
“Wachs’s research has greatly stimulated the work of many German catalysis groups,” Schlögl said. “His extensive knowledge of fundamental and applied catalysis allows him to quickly assess research directions and their potential impacts, which makes him an outstanding source of information and new concepts.”
Wachs and Schlögl will also study the oxidation of ethylene to ethylene oxide, which is carried out with silver catalysts to produce antifreeze and other chemical intermediates. They hope to increase the efficiency of ethylene oxide production while minimizing the formation of carbon dioxide, a byproduct of the reaction. Ethylene oxide is one of the top chemical intermediates produced in the world.
“The large number of ethylene-oxide processes in the world means that a decrease in CO2 formation will have a significant impact on global warming,” says Wachs.
The Humboldt Award will enable Wachs and Schlögl to leverage the complementary capabilities of their labs’ spectroscopy, catalysis instrumentation and expertise. While Schlögl relies on synchrotron-based techniques, Wachs uses Raman, infrared and UV-visible and other optical spectroscopy methods as well as chemical techniques.
Recently, with NSF funding, Wachs acquired North America’s first high-sensitivity, low-energy ion-scattering spectrometer (HS-LEIS), one of a handful in the world, for identifying topmost surface atoms of solids (~0.3 nm), the layer responsible for many properties of solids (catalysts, electronic materials, ceramics, pigments). Lehigh also houses the continent’s only high-resolution X-ray photoelectron spectrometer.
Wachs collaborates extensively with researchers worldwide. He has graduated 25 Lehigh Ph.D. students and received Lehigh’s Libsch Award for Outstanding Research and Hillman Award for Outstanding Graduate Student Adviser.
His other awards are from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, and national and international catalysis societies.
Wachs and the other Humboldt Award recipients have been invited to a reception in June at the Schloss Charlottenberg, home of German President Joachim Gauck.
Photo by Theo Anderson