Editor’s note: The Lab Report is a weekly series in The Badger Herald’s print edition where we take a deep dive into the (research) lives of students and professors outside the classroom.

Plastic, one of the most pervasive materials in our everyday lives, depends a lot on the energy guzzling compound polypropylene. But, the Hermans lab hopes to make an impact on industry energy consumption by discovering more sustainable ways to carry out common reactions, including studying the reaction and catalysts that help to make propylene.

The Hermans Research Group, working in sustainable chemistry and catalysis engineering, emphasizes the importance of energy-efficient processes for the mass production of chemicals. Their main goal is to use catalysts, materials that speed up and optimize chemical reactions, to find sustainable routes for the production of propylene, graduate student Theo Agbi said.

Synthesized from natural gas, propylene is a precursor to polypropylene, which accounts for 16% of the global plastics market.

“Our target is to create new materials to generate propylene in a way that is possibly more sustainable, more energy-efficient, than the current industrial practice routes,” Agbi said. ”By utilizing a new reaction route, we can really have a good impact on our energy usage.”

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Concentrating on catalysis presents obvious advantages to industrial processes. Principle investigator and professor of chemical and biological engineering Ive Hermans said close to 90% of all chemicals are produced with a catalyst, as they allow for mass production of materials with less energy and waste.

“Society requires that we produce all those chemicals,” Hermans said. “Those oldest chemicals define our current quality of life. Our standard of living is totally based on those products.”

The focus on sustainability was an attractive prospect for undergraduate researcher Christine Cheung. Just entering the field as a freshman, she was drawn to the impactful applications of catalysis.

Current methods for propylene production require an endothermic reaction, meaning it consumes energy, Hermans said. Cheung and her mentor Agbi are studying routes that are exothermic, meaning they release energy instead.

“Obviously swinging that from something that consumes energy to something that produces energy would have a tremendous impact on the CO2 footprint process,” Hermans said.

Cheung began her research studying the catalytic effects of different combinations of metals, like gallium or lithium. Now, the lab works with boron-based materials. By characterizing products of an oxidation reaction, Cheung is studying the surface of the materials to better understand how it works at a molecular level.

A lot of preparation goes into studies like these. When COVID-19 hit, Cheung’s research forced her to use remote methods. She adapted and was able to conduct background literature reviews to gain a foundational understanding of the systems they work with.

“She really has been versatile in terms of how she learns … fundamental concepts behind experimentation, and she really has been diligent about diving into the literature — seeing what’s been done, and how to apply that to our systems,” Agbi said. “She’s very well-rounded as a researcher.”

This is not easy work — Cheung said she has spent long hours trying to get complicated instruments to work and hoping they could get her the data she needs. She found the friendly lab environment of Hermans lab helps her to overcome these challenges.

Cheung said lab members are really helpful in navigating obstacles in the lab and expanding her skill set. Agbi said the lab is a mix of graduate students studying both chemistry and chemical engineering, which fosters an environment of collaboration.

Seeing these collaborative research environments firsthand gives undergraduates the experience they need to find their career interests in the field and head down a successful path, Hermans said. Additionally, the practice of mentorship is mutually beneficial to both undergraduates and graduate students or postdocs.

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Witnessing a research lab exposes students to science and scientists, which contrasts the ideas commonly displayed in media and television. Agbi said research and mentorship for undergraduates allows for underrepresented groups to “get their foot in the door” and get a sense of the environment and career path forward for people like themselves.

“I think it’s important for undergraduates to just have access to a diverse set of mentors and ideas about career paths,” Agbi said.

Now in her senior year, Cheung values the time she has given to the Hermans Research Group. Between the struggles of instrumentation and literature review, she has gained experience with lab techniques and learned how to think like a problem solver.

Cheung will soon graduate with a degree in history and molecular and cell biology. With valuable research experience under her belt, she plans to go see the world and shift her work toward the industry of research and development.

“I definitely feel like it’s given me a good skill set and experience, especially outside of just coursework for chemistry. There’s definitely a lot of instruments that I wouldn’t have gotten to use if I didn’t do research,” Cheung said.