James McKone Selected as a 2020 Beckman Young Investigator

  • By Jenny Stein
  • 19 June 2020

James McKone, Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, was selected as one of the ten 2020 Beckman Young Investigator awardees. The awardees exemplify the Foundation’s mission of supporting the most promising young faculty members in the early stages of their academic careers in the chemical and life sciences, particularly to foster the invention of methods, instruments, and materials that will open new avenues of research in science. 

His research focuses on designing a new generation of enzyme-like catalysts that use renewable electricity to recycle carbon dioxide emissions back into useful fuels and chemicals.

“Over the last several decades, the cost of renewable electricity has dramatically decreased to the point where building a new solar or wind farm is, in many cases, more economical than continuing to run a coal-fired power plant,” said McKone.

“This is incredibly exciting because it means we can start to imagine what it would look like to power our whole society with carbon-free resources,” he said.

Consider chemical manufacturing – the industry that produces most of the stuff that we use every day. The dangerous by-products and waste created by this industry adds to the massive global pollution problem - from the atmosphere to the depths of the ocean, and from backyards to beaches. According to McKone, simply improving renewable electricity is not enough to mitigate our climate impact if we do not also rethink the way we make things like plastic, steel, and textiles.

He received funding from the BYI program to develop new catalysts and chemical reactors that can recycle carbon dioxide and other chemical wastes back into useful fuels and raw materials.

“We ultimately want to build a circular chemical economy—a sustainable approach to chemical manufacturing where every molecule that comes out of a smokestack or a tailpipe is captured and reused hundreds or thousands of times instead of being discarded as waste,” said McKone.

His team will make two major adaptations to current industrial catalysts. Rather than heat, they will use electricity to drive chemical reactions so that they can use renewable resources as the main energy input. They will also mimic the behavior of biological enzymes to improve the efficiency of chemical reactions by designing specific catalytic units, called active sites, to perform each individual step of the complex chemical reactions.

“Getting these catalysts to work is an incredible challenge,” said McKone. “To meet that challenge, we are developing new experimental capabilities that will allow us to measure and manipulate catalyst materials with atomic-scale precision.”

Written by Leah Russell, reposted from SSOE.