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July 19, 2005

Dr. Douglas Ray, Chief Research Officer, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, June 15, 2005

Dr. David Lemberg: Our next guest is Dr. Douglas Ray, Chief Research Officer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, located in Richland, Washington. PNNL is a Department of Energy Office of Science National Laboratory that advances the fundamental understanding of complex systems, and provides science-based solutions for the nation.

Dr. Ray is responsible for defining and advancing the laboratory Science and Technology portfolio, coordinating scientific discretionary investments, providing oversight of the peer review process at PNNL, and the Affiliate Scientist Program, as well as working with its counterparts at other national laboratories, to strengthen the DOE National Laboratory system in serving national needs in energy, science, the environment, and national security.

Dr. Ray is a member of the American Chemical Society, and the American Physical Society. He has co-authored more than thirty peer review publications, and has presented more than fifty invited lectures nationally and internationally. Welcome, Dr. Douglas Ray.

Dr. Douglas Ray: Thank you very much.

Lemberg: Doug, thank you for being with us today. Well, I’m aware that you were one of the co-workshop organizers for the Advanced Resources for Catalysis Science. There was a workshop held at PNNL last September.

Ray: Right.

Lemberg:Doug, can you bring us up to date on some of the most significant trends and areas of research occurring in catalysis science.

Ray: Oh, sure, let me, if you don’t mind, take a little minute to make sure that everybody’s up to speed on what catalysis really is.

Lemberg: Yes, please.

Ray: It’s, basically, it’s the control of chemical transformations, that is, directing a chemical reaction towards desired products, and away from undesired products. Today, at least, the Holy Grail of the field is to understand how to design catalysts to control chemical reactivity and selectivity. And, the reason that’s the Holy Grail, is most catalysts that have been developed, and they’re really, really important in all sorts of things . . . we can get into that later . . . have been discovered, rather than designed. And so, really, the most significant trend is, can we figure out how to design them, rather than just kind of discover them?

And, how that takes shape is, really, based upon the nanoscience revolution, and the revolution high-performance computing that really makes new things possible, things that weren’t possible ten or twenty years ago. And, as a specific example, probably the best, I guess, opportunity, is the development of what we call hybrid catalysts that combine the advantages of individual catalysts, by combining them all into a single system, and taking advantage of the number of different opportunities that are available.

Lemberg: Doug, I’m just leaping ahead here, when you say, “hybrid catalyst,” does that mean that you lose some of the deleterious properties of some, and enhance those of others?

Ray: That is definitely the hope. It is a really hard problem, but I think people are making good advantage of that sort of thing. Let me give you a couple of examples: Cabela’s Catalysts, perhaps the most widely known catalysts are in catalytic converters, in automobile engines, to reduce the pollutants that come out on the back end, following the internal combustion in the engine. And, those are all heterogeneous catalysts, which have a number of positive aspects, but they have strengths and weaknesses.

And, if we were able to devise a system where we took a homogeneous, or maybe even a biological catalyst, and immobilize them on a solid material, really significant advances in performance, which would allow increased engine efficiency, could be realized. Now, that’s, perhaps, the best example of what those hybrids . . . an example of those hybrid catalysts.

Sam Kephart: Well, you know, listening to this conversation vis a vis our last, I can’t help but think of an analogous situation that really, at a very fine level, in catalysis, there’s sort of nanoscale reactions either happening, or hopefully, going to happen. Are some things headed in that direction, in terms of nanomaterials being used as catalysts?

Ray: Oh, yeah, very definitely. Nanomaterials, some are used as catalysts. Frankly, many more are claimed to be useful than actually are, but that’s pretty typical. But, perhaps, as importantly, and it’s along this hybrid line, we actually have some significant efforts here at PNNL in the design and synthesis of nanoporous materials. And, the beauty of these nanoporous materials are that you can imagine tethering a biological catalyst, like an enzyme, or a homogeneous catalyst that maybe a chemist synthesized in the laboratory, to these nanoporous materials, to get the selectivity and specificity of those catalysts with the kind of improved mass transport and transfer characteristics of nanoporous materials.

So, it really, in the development of these and characterization of nanoporous and other nanoscale materials, really precede a revolution in this field, and allows incredible things to happen . . . or should allow incredible things to happen in the next, oh, five to ten years.

Lemberg: Wow, Doug, so enhancing, for example, the characteristics of a zeolite with a biological material?

Ray: Absolutely. That’s a perfect example, there’s a beautiful . . . I think a beautiful example that’s related to that, that we’ve done here at PNNL of all the zeolitic materials, and by appropriately chemically treating the zeolite, and then immobilizing, I think it’s a hydrogenase enzyme, we’ve been very successful at producing hydrogen from, I think it’s some sort of hydrocarbon precursor that allows . . . but, this enzyme lasts and continues to work for extended periods of time, weeks, when it’s immobilized in the zeolite, as opposed to when it’s floating around in liquid solution. It stays functional for a day or so. So, really an incredible examples.

Lemberg: Doug, I’m thinking that the . . . I’m guessing that all of this work will point toward the fields of energy, and environmental safety.

Ray: Yes, that’s largely the case. I mean, our own work, I mean, of course, as you indicated in your introduction, PNNL’s a Department of Energy National Laboratory, and one of our focuses, one of our major focuses, is on energy security which, in this case, is involved in developing new fuels to be used to replace imported transportation fuels, that is oils that we import, of course, from the Middle East, predominantly, and take better advantage of our domestic carbon resources.

And, there are two pieces to that that are important. One is, of course, can we use efficiently and effectively, coal or biomass, and if the use of that is environmentally sound and benign, you have to capture and sequester the carbon before you create your fuels, or as you use your fuels. And so, there’s a huge effort involved, and that’s kind of environmental remediation, really, is can we reduce the atmospheric concentrations of carbon by reducing the net emissions of carbon through the use of catalytic materials. And, it’s a huge area of emphasis for us.

Kephart:: Douglas, I live in the State of South Dakota, and they have a very big ethanol agenda going on, not just experimentally, but with actual production.

Ray: Sure.
Kephart:: And, I know one of the major issues around ethanol is the amount of energy consumed to get it from corn to an ethanol state. Can I imply, from some of your advice here, that there may be some catalytic improvements that could really help make that process much more efficient and consume less energy?

Ray: Absolutely, I mean, that’s really . . . I didn’t mention this earlier, so I really appreciate the question. Catalysts not only direct chemical reactions in the ways you want them to, a successful catalyst always improves the energy efficiency of the process, as well. So, it can require much less energy input, and, therefore, less energy intensive processes. I should mention that we, I think, quite cost effectively, know how to create ethanol and bio-diesel from bio products.

When we start from starch, one of the Holy Grails is can we start, not from starch, but the vastly more prevalent structural materials in the plants, such as cellulose. And, if we can figure out how to do that, and there are efforts here underway, to sort that out in a cost-effective manner, then, the future for biomass, is, I think, much brighter, and will be much more valuable to the nation, as a whole.

Kephart:: Well, that’s huge, if you can do that. I mean, huge, that is huge.

Ray: No, no, it’s definitely true. I mean, you know, there are various studies out there that show that biomass can be up to, I see numbers, 15%, 20% of this nation’s energy, I think it’s transportation fuel usage can be displaced by biomass, should we be able to, successfully, improve the processing, which really means the catalytic processes that produce fuel from biomass.

Lemberg: So, this will, now, impact us, not only environmentally, but also, economically, and geo-politically?

Ray: Yeah, it’s really spectacular. I mean, I guess I should summarize something a little bit here, and that is, you know . . . and, this is an example, but truly, the importance of catalysis to our energy, economic and environmental security, you simply can’t overemphasize it. And, in fact, you know, kind of skipping to the economic contribution, the estimate is that one-third of the gross national product in the United States involves the catalytic process somewhere in the production chain. And so, fairly modest improvements to catalytic processes can have huge economic benefits.

We are, of course, the United States has long had . . . I mean, catalysis is an old science, right, it’s about at least a hundred years old, but it is really, really important, and I think we, as a nation, have under-invested in the science, in this R&D area relative to other nations.

And, it was about a month ago, actually, the day or two after the workshop that you mentioned, that I had the chance to brief the President’s Science Advisor and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Dr. Jack Marburger, when he visited PNNL. And, I asked him . . . well, the day is clear, we, as a nation, have under-invested. The question is, why? And, I did say to Jack, “Well, I hope we made a strategic decision not to do this, and he looked at me and kind of chuckled and said, “Well, I wish it were, too, but frankly, we just dropped that ball.”

So, we’re working hard to encourage the nation to invest in this important area, where I think we are under-invested.

Lemberg: Doug, thank you. I want to make sure we talk about the new PNNL endeavor, the Institute for Interfacial Catalysis.

Ray: Sure.

Lemberg: Can you talk about this subset?

Ray: Sure, happy to do that. We decided, frankly, to form this institute, really to focus . . . focus a light, and hopefully, some PR, as we were discussing earlier, but also, to help focus the community on some really key problems. And, we expect that that institute will provide a central focal point for the federal research efforts in catalysis in this country. Most other nations, most underdeveloped nations, several in Europe, and in Japan, as well, have National Catalysis Research Institutes. This nation does not have one. That was one of the key recommendations of the workshop that we mentioned earlier.

And, we hope that the Institute for Interfacial Catalysis, although it’s small right now, supported partly by the Department of Energy, and partly by internal PNNL funds, will allow us to really enable some of those truly exciting advances. We successfully . . . the Director of that Institute is Dr. Mike White, from the University of Texas, and he and his wife have moved to beautiful Eastern Washington to participate in that institute, and we’re in the process, frankly, of strengthening the capabilities that will allow us to do some of the things that we described earlier.

One of the most exciting areas that Mike is interested in, is photo-catalysis, and what that really means is, using light to drive chemical reactions. Of course, the Holy Grail here is to use sunlight, because we’ve got a lot of it, of course, especially in Eastern Washington, but other parts of the world, too, to produce fuels benignly. And, the most exciting area, and we just started some projects here, research programs here, is the creation of hydrogen from water and sunlight, and the issue is, that’s done catalytically, so it requires the design and synthesis of a new catalyst to really enable that.

And, we have some, what we think, are great ideas. The challenge is turning those great ideas into a cost-effective solution. But, that’s one of the focuses of the institute, is this far-reaching goal of creating a fuel without requiring any carbon in it, whatsoever. I mean, it’s an absolutely carbon-free production of fuel mechanism. So, we’re fairly excited about that. Frankly, that’s not five or ten years off. As the President has indicated, that’s probably twenty, thirty years off, at a minimum, but, nevertheless, it’s really a worthy goal, we believe.

Lemberg: Doug, thank you. Sam, go ahead.

Kephart:: Yeah, I’m curious to know, Doug, what, if anything, PNNL is doing to carry your message regarding the catalysis research, and what the future portends in this area, out to colleges, and, ultimately, high schools that are the breeding ground, if you will, for the people who are going to have to pick up this torch and carry it after you’re retired and watching the ocean, somewhere.

Ray: Well, you know, we don’t . . . frankly, we have not done much of outreach in that way. And, I think that that’s an area that we anticipate the institute may be able to help provide that. We, of course, at PNNL, we have summer Fellowship Programs, and, in fact, I, just yesterday, had the opportunity to give kind of an overview of the laboratory to about 140 students, both undergraduate, and high school students, and I think, a few graduate students, as well, to highlight the various things going on here at PNNL. And, since this is one of my passions, I, of course, was sure to work it in.

We have not done too much in the way of traveling to other institutions to broadcast this message, but I think that that’s something that we should consider in the future.

Kephart:: Well, Doug, the reason I bring it up, and forgive the analogy, but maybe, we need to do a little catalysis amongst different think tanks and schools, and universities, to sort of cross breed a little bit.

Ray: There have . . . it’d be a great idea. I think it . . . you know, it’s, as I said, it’s an old science, and it’s . . . you know, it hasn’t been as exciting as other fields. I mean, certainly, many young students who are interested in science have typically gone the way of biology, which has been, of course, very hot recently, as well as computing, but the nanoscience revolution has really attracted a lot of new people, and new young people, new programs.

And, I think we have a good hope of taking advantage of the nanoscience revolution, and applying it to this particular problem, and hopefully, we can use that as a vehicle to get young people involved, because you’re absolutely right, if we don’t continue to keep the young folks excited and involved in these fields, they die, and we don’t have what we need to move forward.

Lemberg: Doug, thank you for a tremendously exciting conversation.

Kephart:: Yeah, that was great, thank you.

Ray: My pleasure, thank you.

Lemberg: Well, Doug, we’d love to have you back later in the year to follow up.

Ray: OK, thank you.

Lemberg: Our guest is Dr. Douglas Ray, Chief Research Officer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. PNNL is located in Richland, Washington.

Posted by David Lemberg at July 19, 2005 05:31 PM