Please tell us about yourself

A University of Kansas doctoral student in chemical and petroleum engineering has won the prestigious Kenneth G. Hancock Memorial Award in Green Chemistry.

Madhav Ghanta is one of only two recipients in the nation to be selected by the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute. He was presented with the honor June 21 in Washington, D.C., at the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards Ceremony held at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

Growing up in India, Madhav Ghanta’s education was shaped by the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, the world’s deadliest industrial accident, which killed thousands of people in his home country.

In Ghanta’s view, the deaths at Bhopal were the result of obsolete technology.

That history gives Ghanta a strong sense of purpose when he enters Kansas University’s chemical engineering lab.

“We need to come up with ways to improve the quality of our life to sustain our lifestyle (without) having to damage the environment,” Ghanta said. “So that is my driving force.”

At 24, Ghanta has received recognition for doing just that.

What did you study?

Ghanta did his bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering from Osmania University, India followed by M.S. and PhD in Chemical and Petroleum Engineering from University of Kansas.

Tell us a bit about your research

The graduate student, who came to KU in 2006, is part of a team of researchers working on a cleaner way to make ethylene oxide.

An important industrial component, ethylene oxide is found in fabric, antifreeze, plastic water bottles, sports gear and detergent. Creation of the chemical also leaves behind a heavy carbon footprint.

“With increasing standard of living and population, more people are consuming these commodities. And the amount of carbon dioxide that you are generating will keep increasing as you are making more and more ethylene oxide,” Ghanta said.

Ethylene oxide is the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide among all chemicals, sending 3.4 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air. It’s a number equal to the pollution created from 900,000 cars each year.

Ghanta worked with postdoctoral researcher Hyun Jin Lee at KU’s Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis to discover a way to create ethylene oxide minus the carbon dioxide byproduct.

Selected by the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemical Institute, Ghanta was presented with the award last week in Washington, D.C.

“The current technology is wasteful,” said Ghanta. “Roughly 15 percent of the converted ethylene is lost to burning, producing 3.4 million tons of carbon dioxide — that’s equivalent to the pollution caused by 900,000 cars. The global demand for EO is increasing and as more plants are constructed, the amount of carbon dioxide produced will also increase proportionately.”

The technique spearheaded by Ghanta and Hyun Jin Lee, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis — dubbed “Pressure Intensified Light Olefin Epoxidation” — has the potential to radically alter the production of ethylene oxide by significantly conserving energy, minimizing waste and eliminating carbon dioxide emissions.

“The only side product formed is water, which is environmentally acceptable,” Ghanta said.

How does your work benefit the community?

The KU graduate student said that his research is inspired by the needs of industry, along with a deep-seated hope to perform work that is beneficial to society at large.

“A majority of the commercially practiced technologies are not environmentally sustainable as developed during the last century,” said Ghanta. “Incidents like the Bhopal gas leak are a stark reminder of the extreme hazard that obsolete technologies pose to humans and the environment.”

Through the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis, KU has a hand in patenting the new, nature-friendly technology. A unique industrial partnership program exists between the center and its corporate members in which companies provide guidance on a project and receive access to resulting technologies along with priority licensing opportunities for approaches developed at the the center.

Ghanta’s faculty mentors, Bala Subramaniam, the Dan F. Servey Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, and Daryle Busch, the Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, were both on hand in the nation’s capital to see him accept the award.

“The elimination of carbon dioxide formation in CEBC’s ethylene oxide technology represents an important breakthrough in solving a major grand challenge in industrial chemistry,” said Subramaniam. “Madhav’s ingenious experimental work and sound engineering calculations were critical to demonstrate significantly increased productivity and safe operation of the novel CEBC technology.”

“We’re deeply pleased that graduate student Madhav Ghanta has been singled out for the Hancock Award in Green Chemistry,” said Busch. “This is a high honor for our young colleague. It will mark him as a talented and dynamic new professional to watch grow. As a member of a research team, Madhav is partnering in developing a commercial process that is very important both economically and environmentally. The process presently practiced is among those most in need of replacement for safety, greening and, now, also economic reasons. Even beyond these initiatives, committed students like Madhav Ghanta make it more fun to share in their excitement as each new discovery is made.”

The center has been working on a carbon dioxide-free process to produce ethylene oxide for the past several years.

Ghanta’s calculations for temperature, pressure and mixing provided a breakthrough in finding a method that didn’t create carbon dioxide as a byproduct, Subramaniam said. It also reduced the amount of ethylene wasted, which costs companies around $2 billion each year.

“This has been a grand challenge in industrial chemistry to develop a CO2-free ethylene oxide (process),” Subramaniam said.

Companies have taken notice of the breakthrough, Ghanta said. Currently KU is working to license the technology, but more analysis has to be done before the technology becomes commercialized.

“There is a lot of promise for this process to succeed on a large scale,” Subramaniam said.

The Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis’ mission is to develop cleaner, more efficient industrial processes to make chemicals and fuels.