UB chemist receives $650,000 NSF CAREER award to develop new catalysts

Scientist David Lacy talking with a student in the lab.

David Lacy (right), assistant professor of chemistry, speaks with chemistry PhD student Paul Fanara. Fanara is among scientists who will be developing and studying manganese-based catalysts through Lacy’s new CAREER Award. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

David Lacy’s lab is developing cheaper, more sustainable alternatives to ruthenium-based compounds used in industrial reactions

Release Date: July 25, 2019

U B chemist David Lacy.

David Lacy. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

“Our work in developing manganese-based catalysts will enable new sustainable chemistry by replacing toxic and expensive ruthenium-based catalysts.”
David Lacy, assistant professor of chemistry
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Ruthenium, a transition metal, is a key component of catalysts used to speed up chemical reactions in the food, pharmaceutical and petroleum products industries.

Ruthenium does its job well. But it’s scarce, pricey and toxic.

To address these problems, University at Buffalo chemist David Lacy has received a $650,000 CAREER award from the National Science Foundation to study new chemical compounds that could replace their ruthenium counterparts.

His focus is on developing catalysts based on manganese, which, in contrast to ruthenium, is abundant, cheap and nontoxic.

“Our work in developing manganese-based catalysts will enable new sustainable chemistry by replacing toxic and expensive ruthenium-based catalysts that are currently in use,” says Lacy, PhD, an assistant professor of chemistry in the UB College of Arts and Sciences.

The CAREER award is one of the nation’s most prestigious honors for early-career faculty. With Lacy’s new grant, UB researchers have received 11 CAREER awards in 2019.

Probing the unique properties of manganese catalysts

A scientist pouring a white powder into an orange solution in a flask.

UB chemistry PhD student Karthika Kadassery mixes reagents to prepare a manganese-based precatalyst in the lab of UB chemist David Lacy. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

Manganese catalysts are chemical complexes that contain a variety of interesting chemical properties. Through the CAREER project, Lacy and his students will tailor different components of manganese catalysts to fine-tune the compounds’ properties for industrial applications.

A finger points at a chemical diagram sketched onto a fume hood in the lab.

Diagrams sketched onto chemical fume hoods depict the work of the Lacy Lab. The lab studies both ruthenium- and manganese-based catalysts, with the goal of improving the performance of catalysts and finding more cost-effective compounds that can act as catalysts. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

Ultimately, the goal is to create catalysts for hydrogenation and dehydrogenation, processes that are useful in food chemistry and in the production of certain pharmaceuticals and petroleum-derived products.

“Manganese shares some of the properties of ruthenium and other transition metals, but it also has some interesting and unique chemical and electronic properties of its own,” Lacy says. “We’re excited to explore how manganese-based catalysts perform in chemical reactions, and how we can maximize their effectiveness and improve their turnover rates, which has to do with the number of times a catalyst can be used before it starts to decompose.”

In addition to the lab work, Lacy’s team will partner with local schools to develop hands-on projects that encourage students to pursue careers in STEM. These educational initiatives are in collaboration with the WNY STEM Forum and the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Partnership (ISEP), a UB-led partnership with Buffalo Public Schools, SUNY Buffalo State and the Buffalo Museum of Science to improve science education in Buffalo schools.

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