Southeastern Professor of Organic Chemistry Jean Fotie is trying to make the world a better place by reducing carbon dioxide emissions and recycling the CO2, while also providing unparalleled student research opportunities in the process. That task became easier when he received a $265,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The purpose of the grant is to develop greener and sustainable catalytic methods for the reductive functionalization of carbon dioxide. In other words, the goal of the project is to develop better ways to turn CO2 into useful commodity materials.
“Reducing the emission of carbon dioxide, one of the most significant long-lived greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere is one of the major challenges of our time,” said Fotie, a resident of Ponchatoula. “The alarming rate at which the concentration of carbon dioxide is increasing in the atmosphere has already prompted the scientific community to develop strategies to either limit the emission and / or remove this greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.”
Fotie explained that one of these approaches, known as capture and sequestration, is a technique through which carbon dioxide from power plants, combustion, and other industrial sources that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere is captured, compressed, and injected into underground geologic formations for safe, secure, and permanent storage. Despite the high cost associated with this process, the CO2 captured through this technique is stored, not transformed or recycled for other usage. Consequently, it is still susceptible to create serious environmental issues in the future.
There have also been a number of regulations designed to reduce the release of CO2 into the atmosphere, notably The Paris Climate Agreement. However, integrating economic viability as an important parameter for a more sustainable outlook has emerged as a convenient approach in recent years, focusing primarily on the conversion of this abundant and nontoxic feedstock into valued-added chemicals, Fotie said.
“For example, imagine that CO2 is incorporated into other molecules through simple and safe transformations to create new pharmaceuticals, textiles, fibers, or any useful materials for a common purpose,” he explained. “Better yet, imagine a car that can transform the CO2 released from burning fossil fuels into methanol through a simple catalytic convertor. Then imagine that this car stores the methanol and then burns it as a fuel in a circular recycling system to further a morning commute or a long trip.”
“More than the obvious environmental remediation, this approach will be like turning CO2 into cash, and there is no better incentive than that for the chemical industry,” Fotiesaid. “Of course, this requires the development of practical and sustainable catalytic systems that can enable a streamline fixation and conversion of CO2 into these useful chemicals, preferably via continuous flow industrial processes.”
“Dr. Fotie has been one of our most productive researchers for years, so it is no surprise that he has received this prestigious award,” said Dean of the College of Science and Technology Dan McCarthy. “It is not just the quality of the work that distinguishes his research, but it is the fact that he includes so many of our students in his research. This grant will not only help the scientific community, but will also lead to an outstanding educational experience for our students.”
“The project objective is to develop a better understanding of how a number of active precious metals on one hand, and less active but earth-abundant metals on the other hand, respectively nano-dispersed in a range of sol-gel-derived organically modified silicates, would behave toward the reductive functionalization of CO2,” Fotie explained. “Our hope is that, one day, one of these new materials we are developing could be used in the transformation previously mentioned or as a catalytic convertor in a new and greener generation of cars.”
More importantly, Fotie said, these activities will provide a unique opportunity to create a research environment that combines three very different groups of students at different stages of their education, namely the high school students enrolled in Southeastern’s Math-Science Upward-Bound program, Southeastern undergraduate
students, and Southeastern integrated science and technology master’s students.
“Chemistry is an applied science, and ‘learning by doing’ is the best educational approach to make our students ‘real world ready,’” he said. “So, besides the development of a new catalytic system, there is an important educational aspect associated with this project.”
Fotie said the grant provides tuition and wages for an industrial science and technology master’s student, wages for undergraduate students, and summer stipends for high school students from the Southeastern Math-Science Upward-Bound program who will be involved in the project.
“This is very important because it enables these students to quit their off-campus jobs and focus exclusively on the task at hand,” he said. “This unique learning environment is designed to enable the younger generation to mirror their future through the lenses of their observations and interactions with the advanced generation.”
In fact, the groundwork for this project was laid by Southeastern alumni, who were all supported by a previous grant and have now all graduated and advanced to industry jobs or graduate school.
“Their success is, in part, attributed to the fact that they did not have work off campus, and could focus on school, while conducting their research in between classes,” Fotie said. “This unique opportunity allows them to be exposed early on to important applications of the concepts they learn during lectures and enables them to make informed decisions about their futures.”
Fotie obtained his bachelor’s degree in chemistry and master’s degree in natural product chemistry from the University of Yaoundé I in Cameroon, where he also started his doctoral degree. He was a visiting doctoral student at the University of Potsdam in Germany before returning to Cameroon to defend his thesis. After, he was a postdoctoral fellow in bioinorganic chemistry at McGill University in Canada and a World Health Organization research scholar in medicinal chemistry at The Ohio State University School of Pharmacy.
By Tonya Lowentritt