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Chemistry & Materials - An overview of NSF research
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Photo, caption follows:

A scanning electron micrograph of NanoActive™ Magnesium Oxide Plus, a nano-engineered material whose huge surface area makes it very efficient at capturing and destroying toxic chemicals. Just 25 grams (a little less than an ounce) has the surface area of almost three football fields. This commercial material, developed with NSF support, is one of a family of products designed to give first responders, hazmat teams and other emergency personnel a single technology to counteract a variety of chemical warfare agents and toxic industrial chemicals.
Credit: NanoScale Materials, Inc.* (*contact for permission to use this image)

 

Getting Greener
In recent years, more and more researchers have been trying to find environmentally benign ways to manufacture products, create chemical reactions, treat waste, generate energy and monitor air and water.

NSF supports a broad range of such research projects, known collectively as "green chemistry."

Perhaps the most immediate of green chemistry’s many goals is to reduce or eliminate the use of toxic solvents, poisonous metals, corrosive chemicals and other hazardous substances. A notable example of this effort is the work of Joseph DeSimone. Along with his colleagues at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the North Carolina State University, Raleigh, DeSimone has been pioneering ways to carry out a variety of industrial scale chemical processes using nothing but carbon dioxide as a solvent. The techniques have proven successful in applications ranging from the manufacture of Teflon to the production of semiconductors, and if employed widely, could dramatically lower the release of many industrial pollutants. By no coincidence, DeSimone serves as director of the NSF Science and Technology Center for Environmentally Responsible Solvents and Processes and co-director of the Kenan Center for the Utilization of Carbon Dioxide in Manufacturing, a nonprofit research organization sponsored by 16 corporations worldwide.

Meanwhile, other scientists are focusing on the use of hydrogen as a source of energy. Hydrogen is an attractive fuel for automotive power and other applications because it produces an exhaust that is nothing but water vapor, with no noxious emissions to pollute the air and no carbon dioxide to exacerbate global warming. Hydrogen can be burned in a more-or-less standard internal combustion engine. Or it can be used in a far more energy-efficient device known as a fuel cell, where the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen creates an electrical current.

Either way, unfortunately, pure hydrogen is difficult to come by. It can be extracted from natural gas but an inevitable by-product of the process is carbon dioxide -- the very thing that the use of hydrogen is intended to eliminate. So scientists are looking at a host of alternatives. Recently, for example, researchers found that sunflower oil can yield hydrogen suitable for powering fuel cells in cars. Others are studying leaves, which are a kind of natural "fuel cell" in reverse: they use the energy of sunlight to separate water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen. The researchers hope to emulate this process on an industrial scale.

Taken together, such green chemistry research projects will not only pay off in a cleaner environment, but will take us a long way toward the more productive use of raw materials, a greater emphasis on renewable resources and potential energy independence.

Indeed, NSF’s green chemistry portfolio is still growing, but it has already had a substantial effect. Nearly all of the academic winners of the Environmental Protection Agency's "Presidential Green Challenge Award," which recognizes major contributions to green chemistry and engineering research that has significant societal impact, have been supported by NSF.

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