National science foundation funds methane research

Professor Ryan Hartman

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded its most prestigious honor for young researchers to a new NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering faculty member who is trying to solve the difficult problem of controlling methane’s carbon-hydrogen bonds at moderate temperatures—a problem which, if solved, could lead to greener energy, improve the manufacture of commodities, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals, and perhaps even keep future intergalactic travelers healthy.

The NSF selected Assistant Professor Ryan Hartman, who joins the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering this summer, for a Faculty Early Career Development Award, more widely known as a CAREER Award. Hartman will receive $501,000 over five years to research methane—the most stable of the carbon compounds and therefore the one that poses the most difficulty in separating its bonds at moderate temperatures. Resulting scientific discoveries and processes could also reduce by at least one order of magnitude the cost of synthetizing certain less-stable molecules used in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals as well as fine chemicals, which are pure enough to use in manufacturing and research.

Although technical innovations over the last decade have greatly increased the supply of domestic natural gas, Hartman explains that significant challenges remain in devising novel, economical approaches to upgrading its components at moderate temperatures. His work in gas hydrates could also help solve a vexing problem related to plugging in hydrocarbon and natural-gas pipelines.

His methane research is part of a broader mission of his lab: to advance an established laboratory process to more closely align with large-scale production. “For hundreds of years, chemists in labs have conducted synthesis in batch mode—stirring raw materials and regents in flasks and then laboriously separating out the desired product after the reaction has taken place,” Hartman says. “Using continuous-flow methods, on the other hand, can streamline the discovery processes safely, cleanly, and cost-effectively. Industry often uses continuous-flow methods for production, and we want to help bring it into the mainstream for university laboratories, where much of our nation’s top research is conducted. It could surely drive technology throughout the economy.”

Molecular management in confined spaces and with limited resources also happens to be a roadblock facing the intergalactic travel of humans: It could allow future astronauts to synthesize customized pharmaceuticals while they are light-years away from Earth.

In the much nearer future, Harman’s NSF-funded project will devise innovative approaches to remotely engage K-12 students with chemical engineering research—one element in his longtime efforts to encourage young students to pursue college-level studies in the field.

Hartman joins the NYU School of Engineering from The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, where he was an assistant professor and the Reichhold-Shumaker fellow in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. He was recently honored as visiting assistant professor of the Institut de Chimie de la Matière Condensée de Bordeaux CNRS, Université de Bordeaux, France. He is also a member of the National Academy of Inventors.

“We are pleased that Ryan Hartman has joined the growing list of NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering faculty members who have won NSF CAREER Awards,” said Dean of Engineering Katepalli Sreenivasan. “The award reaffirms our conviction that he has embarked on important research, and we look forward to his future contributions to chemical engineering, the energy sector, and beyond.”