New oxide catalysts to cut air pollution Featured

    Summer Scholar Luke Soule interns with MIT team developing new catalyst materials to reduce cancer-causing chemicals in the atmosphere. 

    Air pollution leads to about 6.5 million deaths worldwide every year, including nearly 200,000 within the United States, MIT graduate student Karthik Akkiraju notes with alarm. MPC-CMSE Summer Scholar Luke Soule joined Akkiraju’s efforts to develop new oxide catalysts to reduce air pollution in W.M. Keck Professor of Energy Yang Shao-Horn's lab.

    “The main goal of my project was to develop a novel class of oxide catalysts to reduce noxious chemicals in the atmosphere known to cause cancer,” says Soule, a rising senior at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. “This involved trying to link electronic structure to the catalyst, to the selectivity, towards these volatiles.”

    During his internship in Shao-Horn’s Electrochemical Energy Lab, Soule flows gases through a plug flow reactor with the catalysts inside, and analyzes the gases using an infrared [IR] spectrometer. Soule points to a computer displaying graphs from IR spectra of his samples. “Right now I'm just measuring the concentration of CO2 [carbon dioxide] in the cell,” he says.

    Akkiraju, whose field is materials science and engineering, says, “I've been working on oxidation reactions for volatile organic compounds. So in the lab we have two basic parts, so we look at synthesis of new materials, and on the other hand we
    look at reaction mechanisms. With the background that Luke has, he fits in well with the synthesis part where using different characterization techniques, he's been exploring this novel set of oxide compounds.”

    “In order to address the issue of removal of toxic gases such as carbon monoxide,
    nitric oxide, [and other] volatile organic compounds, we've been trying to develop new catalyst materials,” Akkiraju explains. “So Luke has taken lead of the project to set up the gas lines for these new organic compounds, run the calibrations, and now he's been producing pretty impressive results.”

    “Luke is an incredible team player,” Akkiraju says. “While he's been working on his own project, he also has been finding time to help other people in the lab characterizing their samples, synthesizing new materials for them, so he has a never-say-die kind of attitude, while he’s always up for everything that comes along his path.”

    Soule, a materials science and engineering major, says he joined Shao-Horn’s group because the group seemed like a family, and he was really interested in catalysis. During a visit to the lab, Soule demonstrates how more catalyst is loaded into the reactor [see related video], known as in situ reactor because reactions can be observed as they are occurring. “To classify the crystal structure of these catalysts we are synthesizing, I learned SEM – scanning electron microscopy – to image the different morphologies of these catalysts,” Soule says. “They're skills I've used in the past, but I've definitely learned more about them, and they're skills I'll continue to get better at as my career progresses. So it was a really good choice.”

    Soule's internship is supported in part by NSF’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers program [grant DMR-14-19807]. Participants in the Research Experience for Undergraduates, co-sponsored by the Materials Processing Center and the Center for Materials Science and Engineering, presented their results at a poster session during the last week of the program. The program ran from June 15, 2017, to August 5, 2017, on the MIT campus in Cambridge, Mass.

    Denis Paiste, Materials Processing Center
    August 28, 2017

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