National Science Foundation Funds Methane Research With Potential for Greener Energy, Manufacturing

Ryan Hartman Is Using Prestigious CAREER Award to Study Why Microsystems Could Help Control Carbon-Hydrogen Bonds

Ryan Hartman's methane research

Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Ryan Hartman is trying to solve the difficult problem of controlling methane’s carbon-hydrogen bonds at moderate temperatures — a problem which, if solved, could lead to greener energy, improve the manufacture of commodities, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals, and perhaps even keep future intergalactic travelers healthy.

He is doing so with the help of a prestigious National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award, more widely known as a CAREER Award. The NSF is providing $501,000 over five years to research methane — the most stable of the carbon compounds and therefore the one that poses the most difficulty in separating its bonds at moderate temperatures. Resulting scientific discoveries and processes could also reduce by at least one order of magnitude the cost of synthetizing certain less-stable molecules used in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals as well as fine chemicals, which are pure enough to use in manufacturing and research.

Although technical innovations over the last decade have greatly increased the supply of domestic natural gas, Hartman explains that significant challenges remain in devising novel, economical approaches to upgrading its components at moderate temperatures. His work in gas hydrates could also help solve a vexing problem related to plugging in hydrocarbon and natural-gas pipelines.

His methane research is part of a broader mission of his lab: to advance an established laboratory process to more closely align with large-scale production. “For hundreds of years, chemists in labs have conducted synthesis in batch mode — stirring raw materials and regents in flasks and then laboriously separating out the desired product after the reaction has taken place,” Hartman says. “Using continuous-flow methods, on the other hand, can streamline the discovery processes safely, cleanly, and cost-effectively. Industry often uses continuous-flow methods for production, and we want to help bring it into the mainstream for university laboratories, where much of our nation’s top research is conducted. It could surely drive technology throughout the economy.”

Molecular management in confined spaces and with limited resources also happens to be a roadblock facing the intergalactic travel of humans: It could allow future astronauts to synthesize customized pharmaceuticals while they are light-years away from Earth.

In the present, Harman’s NSF-funded project is devising innovative approaches to engage K-12 students with chemical engineering research — one element in his longtime efforts to encourage young students to pursue college-level studies in the field. (He recently recruited an outstanding junior from Brooklyn Technical High School, Ivanna Elkik, who is completing a senior thesis on methane science as part of a new partnership between Tandon and her school.)

Among other recent developments in his lab has been the design of micro-structured reactors to perform plasma-liquid-liquid interfacial reactions — a key element in understanding methane C-H activation catalysis. One of Hartman’s graduate students, Jasmine Sabio, is fabricating such reactors (sometimes called microplasmatrons), in collaboration with the CUNY Advanced Science Research Center.

Dean Katepalli Sreenivasan has said, “Professor Hartman’s NSF award is aiding in important research, and we look forward to his continued contributions to chemical engineering, the energy sector, and beyond.”