Southern Research moving ‘green chemistry’ team to new Birmingham lab

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Southern Research has moved a team of scientists working to develop promising clean-energy technologies from North Carolina to a new state-of-the-art laboratory it is opening on the organization’s downtown Birmingham campus.

The research team, led by Amit Goyal, Ph.D., has devised cost-efficient, environmentally friendly methods to produce valuable industrial chemicals from sources such as waste materials and harmful carbon dioxide.

“These leading-edge technologies hold significant potential for commercialization, and relocating our talented scientists to an ultra-modern laboratory in Birmingham will help them advance their important work,” said Art Tipton, Ph.D., president and CEO of Southern Research.

“We are committed to supporting the research being conducted by Amit’s team because it fully aligns with Southern Research’s core mission – finding innovative solutions to make the world a better place,” Tipton said.

Southern Research is investing $1 million to outfit an existing 7,200-square-foot building on its Southside campus as the Sustainable Chemistry and Catalysis Laboratory. Work is under way to install pilot-scale chemical reactors and other equipment at the facility. Funds raised through the recent Change Campaign effort are also helping to drive this important project forward.

The lab is expected to be operational by mid-February, and Goyal’s team, comprising eight researchers, is already working full time in Birmingham, according to Corey Tyree, Ph.D., senior director in Energy & Environment (E&E) at Southern Research.

“This will be a world-class lab where brilliant inventors are creating new technologies that offer a better way of manufacturing everyday products,” Tyree said. “This group is doing award-winning work, and now that work will be carried out right here in Birmingham, where Southern Research has made many groundbreaking discoveries in its history.”

Green technologies

Goyal and his team have developed a method to convert biomass sugars into acrylonitrile, the chemical building block of carbon fiber, which is increasingly used in airplanes, automobiles and other manufactured products because of its strength and light weight.

The Southern Research process to produce acrylonitrile for high-performance carbon fiber is around 20 percent cheaper than conventional production methods and sustainable, lowering greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 40 percent.

Goyal’s team has also developed a process to transform CO2 into high-value chemicals known as olefins, which are used to make a sweeping range of products such as packaging, plastics, textiles, paints and electronics.

Energy-intensive methods are currently used to produce ethylene and other widely used chemicals in the olefin family, so the Southern Research technology could yield significant environmental benefits while also converting a greenhouse gas.

“This relocation represents an exciting and important opportunity to capitalize on significant Southern Research infrastructure and the scientific community in Birmingham,” said Goyal, director of Sustainable Chemistry and Catalysis for Southern Research. “This puts science at the heart of everything we do because our long-term success depends on improving R&D productivity and achieving scientific leadership.”

Expanding capabilities

Mayor Randall Woodfin welcomed Goyal’s team to the city where Southern Research works to discover and develop new medicines, tackles engineering challenges for major government agencies, and researches energy and environmental technologies.

“Birmingham is increasingly becoming a key location for world-class research and a place where important discoveries are being made on almost a daily basis,” Woodfin said. “Southern Research’s decision to move its ‘green chemistry’ scientists to a new lab in the city will add to this momentum. I look forward to seeing their work advance in Birmingham.”

As a result of the team’s relocation, Southern Research has closed its office in Durham, North Carolina. The organization’s Environmental Technology Verification team, led by Tim Hansen, P.E., will continue to operate from the city, evaluating new clean technologies around the world.

Tyree said the decision to close the Durham office will yield cost savings and increase efficiency for the nonprofit organization. The move also unites the Sustainable Chemistry team with other E&E researchers in Birmingham, who focus on issues such as energy storage systems and solar panel durability.

Southern Research opened the Durham office in 1992 to support work for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which at the time operated a major research and development facility in Research Triangle Park.

In recent years, the work in Durham has focused primarily on various green energy technologies from the U.S. Department of Energy and other customers, making the location in North Carolina less necessary than when it was tied to the EPA work.

Republished with permission from Alabama NewsCenter