LSU Chemistry professor receives NSF CAREER award to investigate energy efficient strategies for chemical industry

April 27, 2023

Dr Matthew Chambers

Assistant Professor Matthew Chambers

BATON ROUGE - The chemical industry plays an essential role in utilizing natural resources, such as oil, natural gas, water, metals, and minerals, in developing manufactured chemicals that solve problems that impact our food supply, health, and materials. 

However, petroleum refining and chemical industries are some of the largest energy consumers in the United States as they rely on energy inputs for processing raw materials, fuel production, and facility heating and cooling. 

Energy consumption and production are closely linked to rising environmental problems related to climate change, water and thermal pollution, and solid waste disposal. With a recently funded Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, award from the National Science Foundation, LSU Chemistry Assistant Professor Matthew Chambers will explore sustainable methods that can lead to massive energy savings and waste reduction. 

"Our reliance on high temperature, high pressure, and hazardous chemicals is not environmentally friendly," Chambers said. "In a more energy and environmentally conscious society that we need to exist in, we must revisit some of these underlying processes that are the foundation of the chemical industry." 

The Chambers research group is interested in reinventing how industry creates commodity chemicals from feedstock hydrocarbons, naturally occurring organic compounds of carbon and hydrogen atoms found in crude oil, natural gas, coal, and other energy sources. 

"The oil and gas industry relies heavily on chemical methods of hydrocarbon functionalization that were designed and developed in the early 1900s," Chambers said. "These outdated technologies require a lot of high temperatures and pressures, are energy intensive, and produce large amounts of waste." 

The group will investigate promising methods that leverage renewable energy supplies to employ a more efficient and selective approach to modernize hydrocarbon functionalization. Specifically, the group will focus on converting small hydrocarbons, usually treated as waste, into higher value-added chemicals and fuels, for example, methane into octane. 

In previous studies, the Chambers group successfully demonstrated a functionalization of a carbon-hydrogen bond, C-H, through a photochemical reaction.1,2 Through similar photochemistry, Chambers hopes to uplift molecules and convert light hydrocarbons, which still need to be fully exploited, into commodity chemicals. The promising approach would be a less energy-intensive method compared to current practices in hydrocarbon functionalization.

Light-initiated C–H activation via net hydrogen atom transfer to a Molybdenum(VI) Dioxo

Light-initiated C–H activation via net hydrogen atom transfer to a Molybdenum(VI) Dioxo [Reprinted with permission from J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2022, 144, 44, 20472-20483. Copyright 2022 American Chemical Society.}

Chambers' CAREER award also encompasses an educational and community engagement component that will revamp the LSU ChemDemo program. Since its start in 1997 by Emeritus Professor George Stanley, the ChemDemo program has sent out more than 13,000 LSU students, who visited about 6,500 classrooms, impacting over 162,000 K-12 students. The hands-on demonstrations teach K-12 students the connections of chemistry in everyday life. 

In promoting a more energy and environmentally conscious approach to chemistry, Chambers, who now serves as the program director, will modernize the community program with green and safe demonstrations. 

"Safety is a fundamental skill, and, unfortunately, one that's often not always emphasized. But when you transition to a professional career, it's one of the more critical aspects for our students," Chambers said. "We are going to create a committee of chemistry students that will learn the risk management process and develop new, safe solutions and demonstrations." 

The student committee will learn how to identify, assess, control, and monitor potential hazards, ensuring a safe learning environment. The experience will prepare students with career ready skills targeting risk management and safety that can be employed during their academic training and professional career.

Assistant Professor Chambers began his research career as an undergraduate in the laboratory of Professor Pete Wolczanski at Cornell University, where he received his bachelor’s degree with honors. He continued to MIT for his Ph.D. in Inorganic Chemistry, under the guidance of Professor Dan Nocera. Chambers later worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Collège de France and at UNC Chapel Hill. To learn more about the Chambers research group, visit their webpage.