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Chemical Engineer Justin Notestein Seeks to Clean Up Chemical Processes

DuPont Young Professor, 3M Non-Tenured Faculty Award, McCormick Adviser of the Year: In his short time at the McCormick School of Engineering, Justin Notestein has racked up honors. The assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering has attracted considerable attention, both in regard to his cutting-edge green technology research and his skills with students.

“Two things drew me to Northwestern,” said Notestein, a Dallas native who joined the faculty in 2007. “The first was the opportunity to collaborate – as opposed to compete – with some of the top minds in my field. We tackle big problems and bring creative approaches to longstanding problems. And the second thing, of course, was the students.”

As an undergraduate at Princeton University, Notestein majored in chemical engineering, but he found his interests drawn toward its intersection with chemistry and also the realm of materials science. This duality continued as a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, where Notestein studied under two researchers: one a traditional chemical engineer in the field of catalysis, and another whose interests lay more in the development of new materials.

After completing a post-doc in synthetic organic chemistry at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign – again, an unusual area of research for a chemical engineer – Notestein arrived at Northwestern’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

“What I bring to the chemical engineering department is the desire to bridge the worlds of synthetic chemistry and the rational treatment of data and complex systems of chemical engineering,” Notestein said.

His goal: designing new materials and gaining new understanding in the fields of catalysis and adsorption in hopes of creating more sustainable alternatives to chemical processes.

For Notestein, the importance of these two fields can’t be overstated. Catalysis (the process by which a material helps transform one chemical into another) and its component process, adsorption (in which a molecule is adhered onto the surface of a material) are estimated to account for some 20 percent of the world’s gross domestic product; the processes are a vital step in the creation of all chemical-derived materials, from gasoline to plastics to pharmaceuticals. Notestein’s group is interested in dissecting catalytic processes to understand how they work and then applying that knowledge to create greener solutions to the world’s problems.

“Many catalysts are known to be useful for large-scale industrial processes, but the reactions are extremely complicated, and it’s not clear how they work,” Notestein said. “Empirically you know this powder on the shelf does what you need it to do, but you may not know what part of its structure is the critical element. We seek to make more controlled versions of these catalysts so we can modify them and find the true active site.”

With current technology, catalytic processes are often inefficient, producing wasteful side products or using oxidants that are environmentally hazardous or toxic; Notestein hopes to develop new, cleaner alternatives. His group is also working to purify bio-derived fuels and to clean non-traditional crude oil sources; to capture and reconvert carbon dioxide into useful chemical products and fuels; and, in a project with Argonne National Laboratory, to transform sugars into useful chemicals. He recently initiated two projects totaling $1 million per year on finding alternate routes to important monomers as part of new initiative from the Dow Chemical Company.

When not in his laboratory, Notestein teaches CHEM ENG 210, an introductory chemical engineering course. He says he’s been heartened to see enrollment in the class growing, especially among non-chemical engineering students.

“More students are beginning to see how courses like this give you a systems-level view of the world that can be very useful for people working in other application areas, such as chemistry or biomedical engineering, to help them understand cost and global impact,” he said.

Notestein has also taught a capstone course in chemical process design and a graduate-level course in kinetics and reactor design. Starting in winter 2012, he will offer a new undergraduate class on chemical product design that will teach students how to select molecular properties to create desirable products. His work as an academic mentor has also been well received by his students, who successfully nominated Notestein in 2010 as McCormick Adviser of the Year.

“Working with students is just exceptionally rewarding,” said Notestein, who has settled in Evanston with his wife, a chemist-turned-first-grade-teacher and their one-year-old son. “McCormick has been an excellent home to me.”

-- Sarah Ostman