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Chemical engineering Ph.D. student Ryan Zelinsky has received funding from the Virginia Space Grant Consortium to supplement his dissertation research.

Zelinsky works in the environmental catalysis lab of professor and chair of the department, William S. Epling. The group’s research focuses on improving the performance and longevity of catalysts used in industrial processes, often to reduce pollution.

Zelinsky investigates zeolites, a class of minerals with physical characteristics that make them effective catalysts for many industrial purposes. Zeolites occur naturally, but can be synthesized in the lab for specific traits. A catalyst is any substance that speeds up a chemical reaction, without being consumed in the reaction. Catalysts are used to save energy, reduce waste and control pollution in applications ranging from manufacturing everyday products to converting your car’s emissions to less-toxic gases.

Because the material should be unchanged by the catalysis process, it can undergo repeated cycles. But under certain conditions, chemical changes can alter the substance’s active sites, the region which contributes to the desired reaction, and the catalyst undergoes degradation. For example, although the catalytic converter in your car typically lasts as long as the vehicle, it is changing, slowly becoming less efficient.

Zeolite-based catalysts often deactivate after many cycles, making them the subject of a lot of research, including Zelinsky’s. His focus is on “metal-loaded” zeolites, which have metal ions added to catalyze specific reactions.

“Metal-loaded zeolites are used in many important industrial applications,” Zelinsky said. “These include converting materials to high-value products, or adsorbing pollutant emissions from vehicle exhaust. The goal of this project is to study the factors that influence the degradation of these metal-loaded zeolites.”

Zelinsky’s work will help improve the stability and efficiency of the processes in which zeolite catalysts are used, particularly through his research on reducing emissions from vehicle engines. “This is important to me because it makes the air pollution from vehicles less dangerous to people and the environment,” he said.

He will also synthesize and evaluate zeolites designed to adsorb pollutants, a process in which the harmful molecules adhere to the catalyst’s surface, keeping them from dispersing. The Virginia Space Grant Consortium supports faculty-mentored projects relevant to NASA or the aerospace industry. In space, where weight and mass come at a premium, a catalyst tasked with filtering the air people breath or keeping critical systems running has to be reusable and reliable if it’s going to see the mission safely home.