Aditya Bhan, zeolite model in hand, talks with student researchers in the lab.
Aditya Bhan’s office seems too small to contain his energy—in fact, he seems to have a hard time sitting down for very long. He gets up to reach for a model of a molecule…then another one.
“These are zeolite models,” he explains. “A zeolite is a catalyst that acts like a sieve—some molecules are small enough to pass through them. Most of the gasoline in the world has passed through zeolites to become gasoline.”
Much of Bhan’s work is trying to understand what happens in the nanometer-sized cavities inside a zeolite. His quest is to develop the theoretical and experimental methods to turn non-food biomass into fuels…and to do it in a highly decentralized way.
Instead of a few huge reactors that require elaborate grids to transport energy, Bhan envisions many small energy-producing hubs distributed across the landscape, turning bio waste into energy that is accessible to everyone.
“Our challenge is to do things on smaller scales and intermittently,” he says. “Imagine small, even portable reactors, not more than 50 miles from every person—that’s the kinds of thing we mean by distributed energy production.”
Bhan made the unusual transition from theoretical to experimental research while a postdoctoral researcher, with key contributions including two patents. In 2007, he joined the University’s cohort of internationally-recognized leaders in the search to develop alternative sources and methods of producing energy. Now he is using his blend of expertise to create a powerful and versatile research program in catalytic conversion of alternative carbon sources to fuels.
Because of the potential for his work to transform energy production and its strategic and long-term importance, Bhan was awarded the McKnight Land-Grant Professorship for 2011-13. That was quickly followed by a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation.
“It’s a team!” says Bhan. “I can’t emphasize that enough—I do nothing alone here.”
Models in hand, he heads down to his lab to introduce some of the nine graduate students, three undergraduates, and two postdoctoral scholars applying a world of brain power to different but related projects.
Bhan’s research team converses around a model of a zeolite, a common catalyst with a vast interior surface area.
The reactor tubes in Bhan’s lab are no bigger than a bowling pin and a fraction of the weight—ideally suited to process distributed biomass resources. His group focuses mainly on the role of the catalyst in making and breaking chemical bonds in very short time periods.
Bhan describes the catalysts they study as “practically sand”—like sand, they are mostly silica. But the nanometer-sized cavities and channels inside even one gram of these catalysts contains a total surface area nearly the size of a football field.
The lab contains an array of equipment that allows the team to study these high surface-area materials—absorption, chromatography, and mass spectrometry tools. They also use equipment shared University-wide for magnetic resonance, diffraction, and electron microscopy.
In the lab, Bhan and his students are soon engaged in an energetic discussion that moves from bench to bench. It’s clear that Bhan is a dynamic teacher.
He didn’t start out in science. His family in India included a judge, a lawyer, and child development and home economics professionals. As the youngest, Bhan says he had the freedom to try anything. When he took a class on reaction engineering as an undergraduate in college, he was immediately hooked.
“Now I get to teach it!” he says. “It’s so exciting to pass on this passion. Eighty percent of people who get a Ph.D. in chemical engineering go into industrial positions, but I never applied for one of them. The moment I finished my Ph.D., I went for a postdoc.”
That’s why the award that moved him so deeply this spring came from students in recognition of his outstanding teaching. It’s even more meaningful, he says, because the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science excels in teaching introductory courses, pairing experienced faculty with beginners. Just three years ago, Bhan was the junior member of the team; now he’s mentoring others.
The McKnight Land-Grant Professorship is an honor as well as a practical boost, he says. He can support another graduate student and attend some key conferences, and that’s just the beginning.
“It gives the opportunity to pursue a research direction that I might not otherwise,” he says, “the freedom to try ideas and to start or strengthen some collaborations.
In the quest for new sources and models for producing energy, Bhan himself is a catalyst.
Aditya Bhan, chemical engineering and materials science—Transportation fuels from biomass: breaking the chemical and engineering barriers
Photos by Susie Theis