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An improved global energy landscape

Israel Wachs, who uses Raman spectroscopy to investigate the fundamentals of metal-oxide catalysis, recently received Germany’s Humboldt Research Award for senior scientists.

Wachs, the G. Whitney Snyder Professor of Chemical Engineering, is collaborating with Robert Schlögl, director of the Fritz Haber Institute and the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion in Berlin.

They are examining two methods of producing hydrogen — the water-gas shift reaction and photocatalytic splitting of water.

Hydrogen, which can power engines or fuel cells without emitting greenhouse gases, is now produced by steam reforming of methane, a high-temperature, energy-intensive process.

“The economical production of hydrogen,” says Wachs, who directs Lehigh’s Operando Molecular Spectroscopy and Catalysis Research Lab, “will change the energy landscape of the world.”

Wachs and Schlögl are also studying the oxidation of ethylene to ethylene oxide, one of the top chemical intermediates produced in the world. They hope to increase the efficiency of ethylene oxide production while minimizing the formation of carbon dioxide, a by-product.

“A decrease in CO2 formation,” says Wachs, “will have a significant impact on global warming.”

Wachs and Schlögl are leveraging their complementary capabilities. While Schlögl relies on synchrotronbased techniques, Wachs uses Raman, infrared and UV-visible and other optical spectroscopy methods, as well as chemical techniques.

Schlögl calls Wachs a “pioneer” in characterizing the molecular structure of catalysts and in designing materials with wide-ranging applications.

“Israel’s research has greatly stimulated the work of many German catalysis groups,” Schlögl says. “His extensive knowledge of fundamental and applied catalysis allows him to quickly assess research directions and their potential impacts, which makes him an outstanding source of information and new concepts.”

Wachs recently acquired a high-sensitivity, lowenergy ion-scattering spectrometer (HS-LEIS), one of a handful in the world, for identifying topmost surface atoms of solids (~0.3 nm), the layer responsible for many properties of solids.