Chemical engineer Alexis T. Bell of Oakland, Calif., will be honored April 3 by the world's largest scientific society for his fundamental contributions to developing more efficient catalysts, such as those that extract pollutants from vehicle and power-plant emissions. He will receive the 2001 Award for Creative Research in Heterogeneous Catalysis from the American Chemical Society at its 221st national meeting in San Diego.
"A central part of our work involves spectroscopic techniques. They give us a set of eyes to see the intermediates and products of catalyzed reactions, as well as the structure of catalysts themselves," says Bell, a chemical engineer at the University of California, Berkeley.
Catalysts are the highly skilled construction workers of chemistry, assembling one product after another from starting materials without becoming part of the final structures themselves. Without them, reactions that produce plastics, pharmaceuticals and a host of products simply could not happen.
The spectroscopic techniques Bell has developed are unusual, examining not just starting materials and end products but the action in between as well.
"It's the equivalent of watching bread bake and understanding what actually happens during that process," he explains, "versus just seeing the dough before and the bread after."
He and his team have used this approach to design catalysts that can eliminate nitric oxide from the emissions of power plants and automobiles. New lean-burning vehicles, for example, pollute less per mile; the challenge, however, is that increased air in the mixture redirects the reaction toward consuming oxygen, not nitric oxide. A finely tuned catalyst can compensate.
Bell and his Berkeley colleagues have also just received a 10-year grant from BP Amoco to develop chemicals and liquid fuel from methane gas.