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UVA Chemist Wins National Award for Advances in Hydrocarbon or Petroleum Chemistry

Dec 13, 2021 |
T. Brent Gunnoe, a UVA chemistry professor, recently received the American Chemical Society's George A. Olah Award in Hydrocarbon or Petroleum Chemistry for research that could make the production of a wide range of chemical products less expensive and more environmentally friendly.
Dan Addison

The American Chemical Society has announced that T. Brent Gunnoe, Commonwealth Professor of Chemistry with the University of Virginia’s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, is the winner of the 2022 George A. Olah Award in Hydrocarbon or Petroleum Chemistry. He will be presented with the award in a March 2022 ceremony scheduled for the ACS spring meeting in San Diego.

Gunnoe and his research group focus on developing new catalysts for processes involving the conversion of molecules that have little or no commercial value into high value products. Using hydrocarbon compounds called arenes, which are derived from fossil resources, and olefins, which are primarily derived from natural gas, Gunnoe and his team have developed new processes to produce alkyl arenes and alkenyl arenes from these compounds, which are then used in the process of manufacturing commercial and consumer products ranging from fertilizers and fuels to plastics and pharmaceuticals.

Decades-old methods for making alkyl arenes using a method called acid-base catalysis require tremendous amounts of energy, and the processes lack a property known as selectivity which means they produce unwanted byproducts that need to be removed through distillation, which generates substantial amounts of carbon dioxide for commercial operations that are distilling billions of pounds of products each year. Gunnoe notes that the chemical industry is responsible for as much as 10% of global energy use and more than 5% of carbon dioxide emissions.

To address these drawbacks, Gunnoe and his researchers began exploring new ways of developing alkyl arenes with what are called transition metal mediated catalytic processes.

“When we started this project, we actually hit upon some catalysts that were unique in the way they operated, but they were not good catalysts: they would deactivate very quickly, we would not get a lot of product out them and the selectivity was not as high as we wanted,” Gunnoe said.

Over a period of about 15 years, Gunnoe and his group studied why the catalysts deactivated and what controlled their reaction rates and selectivity.

“Every few years we would advance a catalyst that was better – better selectivity, better longevity, faster rates,” Gunnoe said. “And, based on our years of fundamental studies, about five years ago we hit on a new set of catalysts that achieved a lot of our initial goals.”

The discovery could represent a significant change in the process of making alkyl and alkenyl arenes, one that could have a dramatic impact on the costs of manufacturing products that are produced on a scale of hundreds of millions of pounds per year, and that could lead to significant reductions in the environmental impacts of those processes.

“If this new type of catalytic technology could be commercialized,” Gunnoe said. “It could result in enormous energy savings for making chemicals on a large scale.”

 

Originally established in 1948 as the ACS Award in Petroleum Chemistry to recognize outstanding research achievements in hydrocarbon or petroleum chemistry, the highly competitive award was renamed the George Olah Award in 1997 after the 1994 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Gunnoe was selected for the award based on his work developing catalytic hydrocarbon functionalization including the advancement in arene alkylation/alkenylation. His nomination was supported by chemists around the country.

“Brent has published some of the most remarkable and impactful advances in the development of new catalytic systems,” said Karen I. Goldberg, Vagelos Professor of Energy Research at the University of Pennsylvania, who wrote a letter to the ACS in support of Gunnoe’s nomination. “He has increased the selectivity and activity of these systems to unprecedented levels. He accomplished this through detailed mechanistic studies of the catalytic reactions and the organization of unique collaborative networks that have brought together colleagues across different fields.”

William A. Goddard III, Charles and Mary Ferkel Professor of Chemistry, Materials Science, and Applied Physics at the California Institute of Technology who also wrote in support of Gunnoe’s nomination said, “Brent Gunnoe has an exquisite intuition about organometallic reaction methods, which combined with well-honed techniques to control synthesis to modify systems in specific ways to answer mechanistic issues has moved forward the whole field of mechanism driven catalysis. My group has benefited by having clean cut experiments to initiate computational validation studies.”

While the award recognizes Gunnoe, he was quick to note that credit belongs to a much larger cohort of researchers who have worked in his group.

“I was very excited to receive this award, but the reality is that it is not just a recognition of what I have accomplished but what my group has accomplished in the past 15 to 20 years,” Gunnoe said. “All of the graduate students and all the postdocs who have worked on these projects have contributed significantly in terms of the ideas, and they are actually in the lab doing the work. I view this as an award for the Gunnoe Group.”

The award comes at the end of a remarkable year for the College’s Department of Chemistry, which has seen several faculty members win national and international recognition for their work in 2021, raising the profile of UVA Chemistry and its faculty among its peer institutions.

“Professor Gunnoe winning the Olah Award shows that he is one of the top chemists in his field,” said Jill Venton, chair of the Department of Chemistry. “This award has significant ramifications for UVA, as having top professors allows us to attract better graduate and undergraduate students and to raise more grant support to perform cutting edge research.”

“I think the trajectory for our department right now is tremendous,” added Gunnoe. “I am hoping we continue to build on that. It is a great time to be in chemistry at UVA, and I am very excited about the future.”

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