Urbana chemist wins national award for contributions to cleaner fuels

Thomas B. Rauchfuss of Urbana, Ill., will be honored April 9 by the worlds largest scientific society for developing environmentally beneficial techniques such as molecular scrubbers that clean fossil fuels of sulfur, the major cause of acid rain. He will receive the 2002 Award in Inorganic Chemistry from the American Chemical Society at its national meeting in Orlando, Fla.

We look at the really basic underpinnings of the environmental element, said Rauchfuss, an inorganic chemist at the University of Illinois. What weve really homed in on is a class of compounds called metal sulfides — catalysts that take sulfur out of oil and coal, so they dont make as much acid rain.

However, catalysts — chemistrys highly skilled construction workers — are often such complicated molecules that they are hard to watch in action. Rauchfuss and his research team are working to change that.

We try to understand how the catalysts are made and how they behave, he said. Industrial conditions to make petroleum sweeter, as they say, are so rigorous its hard to see how and what happens. We can get exquisite information in the lab, and so we try to connect the two.

The metals Rauchfuss studies include the exotic, such as highly reactive ruthenium, as well as the more common, such as nickel. They attract the sulfur and transfer it away from the raw fossil fuel to form hydrogen sulfide, a gas. That done, the catalyst is ready for another load.

Once you understand exactly how they work, you can make them better. The fuels we use have to keep getting cleaner, and the resources themselves are getting dirtier, he added.

Rauchfuss's parents were both applied chemists, so I thought I would be a chemist from early on, he said. The nice thing for me is the idea that I can do something very intuitive. I work on things that have these spectacular colors, intense smells; the shapes of the molecules are very interesting. I like that.

Contact: Sharon Worthy
American Chemical Society

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