Rajvi Mehta, ARC’s Technical Sales Manager, sits down with Paul Dauenhauer, Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the University of Minnesota. They discuss Paul’s research passions and solutions to challenges he’s experienced. Enjoy!

Q: Tell me a little about your path to where you are now and what you’ve been most passionate about throughout your career.

A: Our research has focused on controlling reactions using catalytic surfaces. This is a big space to work with millions of applications, so a specific focus has always been on reactions related to sustainability. For the past decade, we have put a lot of emphasis on using renewable carbohydrates to create everything from sustainable fuels to biodegradable plastics and environmentally-friendly soaps and detergents. In the past few years, we have also taken on the important challenge of finding reactions that promote the storage of renewable energy from wind and solar applications as a carbon-free liquid. This has led to a new focus on dynamic catalysts, or catalysts that change with time; this new sub-field of catalysis has been one of our most exciting forays into an almost completely unexplored area of science and engineering.

Q: What are some of the most challenging research hurdles you’ve encountered in your current work?

A: For many of the chemical reactions of relevance to sustainability, chemical complexity is the key challenge to achieving truly insightful conclusions. There can be thousands of chemical reactions and hundreds of chemical species in these systems. In the case of biofuels, our work on thermochemical processes to convert trees and grasses to bio-derived gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel involves thousands of oxygenated chemicals. Sorting this out and extracting fundamental insight has been an enormous challenge, but it is ultimately rewarding when it happens.

Paul’s group has published on a new chemical process to
develop renewable isoprene from biomass, like corn.
Click here to learn more.

Q: What tools do you have available that allow you to achieve your research goals?

A: The complexity of catalytic reactions for sustainability applications has led us to focus on including new tools for both reactor design and chemical compositional analysis. In the past five years, we have developed a new experimental reactor system called the PHASR, for Pulse-Heated Analysis of Surface and Solid Reactions. This permits the measurement of chemical kinetics of reacting solids or surfaces without artifacts due to diffusion or heat transfer. We have also integrated the Polyarc detector into almost all of our reactor systems; this has permitted the students to focus almost exclusively on their research with the confidence that they are measuring chemical compositions accurately.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

A: My graduate school advisor, Professor Lanny Schmidt, told me to always work with people smarter than me. We are lucky at the University of Minnesota Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science to attract the best students from around the world, competitive with any other top ten program. This has made my life wonderful, in the sense that I work with a team that is regularly teaching me as much about their research as I can teach them about general methods and strategies of research management.

To learn more about Paul’s research, click here to visit his group’s page.