Engineering Graduate Student Wins Department of Energy Fellowship

Graduate student Ethan Iaia received a prestigious fellowship from the Department of Energy’s Office of Science to study catalysts in pursuit of clean energy and decarbonization. Iaia will receive funding and an opportunity to work with top researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Iaia, who works under Dr. James Harris in the department of chemical and biological engineering, studies chemical reactions using zeolites, a naturally occurring class of crystalline porous minerals produced synthetically in the Harris Lab. Their porous structure allows zeolites to adsorb large volumes of small molecules. This special property makes zeolites useful for things like trapping odors, but those atom-sized chambers can also host chemical reactions.

Ethan Iaia
Ethan Iaia

“We like to call it designer sand,” Iaia said. “Zeolites are made of the same building blocks as sand — mostly silicon and aluminum — but we can tune the structure for specific applications.” Minerals in this category act as an atomic-scale laboratory to study catalytic reactions within their pores. Using synthetic zeolites allows researchers to avoid naturally occurring impurities and fine-tune the size and shape of the pores.

The eventual goal is to advance understanding of converting methane, a potent greenhouse gas, to liquid methanol. Up to this point, Iaia and the other researchers in the Harris group have been studying simpler reactions, like the oxidation of carbon monoxide, with the use of advanced X-ray spectroscopies.

This graduate fellowship will grant Iaia access to a synchrotron facility capable of these advanced spectroscopies.

“We can observe how the specific metal atom of interest is changing throughout a chemical reaction,” he said. “It’s a way to look under the hood of a chemical reaction to see what’s happening at the atomic level.”

Small, irregular white pebbles with a chalky appearance.
Their porous structure allows zeolites to adsorb large volumes of small molecules.
A 3-D rendering of the molecular structure of zeolite, a microporous aluminosilicate mineral
Molecular structure of zeolite — microporous aluminosilicate mineral, 3D rendering

Brookhaven National Laboratory is one of only three such facilities in the country. Normally, a researcher would go through a lengthy application process for just two or three days at one of these laboratories. Iaia will have three months there, working alongside some of the country’s most brilliant minds working to solve its most pressing challenges.  

“The Graduate Student Research program is a unique opportunity for graduate students to complete their Ph.D. training with teams of world-class experts aiming to answer some of the most challenging problems in fundamental science,” said Harriet Kung, acting director of the DOE Office of Science. “Gaining access to cutting-edge tools for scientific discovery at DOE national laboratories will be instrumental in preparing the next generation of scientific leaders.”