Dr. Yu Lei receives Powe Junior Faculty Award

Dr. Yu Lei

Dr. Yu Lei

Michael Mercier | UAH

Work with epoxidation catalysts by a University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) assistant professor of chemical and materials engineering has been selected to receive a 2015 Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Award by Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU).

Dr. Yu Lei submitted as proposal entitled "Atomistic Design of High-Performance Bimetallic Epoxidation Catalysts" that received the $5,000 award. The unrestricted grant money from ORAU will be matched by UAH.

Epoxides are highly reactive cyclic ethers with a three-atom ring that makes them useful in catalyzing reactions.

The Powe Award certificate will be presented to Dr. Lei at a Sept. 2 reception at the Bevill Conference Center and Hotel. The reception will also honor Dr. Gang Li and Dr. George Nelson as past recipients. Dr. Arlene Garrison, ORAU vice president of university partnerships, is scheduled to attend.

"A number of current industrial oxidation methods pose environmental risks because of the usage of toxic oxidant and the production of a significant amount of organic and inorganic waste," says Dr. Lei. "This project aims at developing new selective oxidation processes for production of valuable chemicals using molecular oxygen, an abundant, inexpensive and environmentally-friend oxidant. If successful, the commercial impact can be significant, since we have the opportunity to increase the overall process economics and decrease the environmental impacts of those large-scale commodity chemicals."

The project is related to $209,478 awarded Aug. 1 by the National Science Foundation to UAH for a research proposal Dr. Lei had previously submitted with collaborator Dr. C. Heath Turner from the University of Alabama, which will receive an additional $183,002 from the NSF under the proposal.

"I think that partially fulfills the goal of the Powe Award, since the Powe Award serves as seed money for junior faculty members to start new research and attract further external funding," says Dr. Lei. Along with the NSF funding, he plans to use the Powe Award money to continue his research.

"The addition of oxygen to hydrocarbons is the simplest method to convert hydrocarbon to valuable chemicals. However, oxidation processes present a significant challenge, as the selective oxidation reactions compete with the combustion reactions," Dr. Lei says. "Our research goal is to design and synthesize effective and efficient nano-catalysts to achieve high selectivity in oxidation reactions."

Funds will be used to purchase necessary chemicals to synthesize the nano-catalysts, and will also provide funding to support Dr. Lei's research group when it travels to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to collaborate with the scientists there.

"A PhD student from our group has spent the summer working on this project at ORNL," Dr. Lei says. "This award will significantly enhance the interactions between our group and the collaborations at ORNL, and allow the team to aggressively pursue our research goals."

Recipients of the awards were selected from among 134 faculty applications.

"The peer-review evaluation and selection process is rigorous and involves outstanding scientists from across the nation," says H. A. Page, ORAU president.

"This is a highly prestigious award and UAH is proud to have one of its faculty members receive it," says Dr. Ray Vaughn, vice president for research and economic development.