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Ryan Hannagan is using his Ph.D. research to discover catalysts that reduce use of heavy oil in plastics production

Ryan Hannagan

Chemistry is the key to solving some of the world’s biggest challenges, such as the energy crisis and climate change, says Ryan Hannagan, AG21. As a Ph.D. student in chemistry, Hannagan has spent the last five years developing a material that could transform the way companies refine oil and produce plastic, in an effort to reduce waste and harm to the environment.

Here, he shares real-world applications of his research, his gratitude to his advisor Charlie Sykes, the John Wade Professor of Chemistry—and his commitment to making science accessible.

What has been the focus of your Ph.D. research?
I study catalysts, which make chemical conversions much faster and use a lot less energy. Pretty much every consumer product involves a catalyst. The problem is that current catalyst design is largely a guess-and-check process. My research uses a high-resolution microscope to image individual atoms and molecules. We use it to understand on a fundamental level how catalysts operate, and then use this information to rationally design new, more efficient materials.

What are the real-world applications of your research?
If we design a catalyst that’s 10 percent more efficient for a chemical process, there’s huge industrial demand, because we can drastically reduce the energy wasted and hence the cost of the process. While it’s difficult to convince companies to sequester carbon dioxide because there’s less economic incentive, if you design something that helps them manufacture way more product with less energy, it’s an easy sell. This in turn reduces a lot of environmental issues, such as pollution from burning fuels and transportation.

One of the catalysts we discovered is used to make propene, an important chemical building block necessary to make polypropylene, which is the backbone of many modern consumer goods such as medical-grade plastics, coffee cups, clothing fibers, and furniture. As we have become more reliant on domestic rather than imported oil, we haven’t been able to meet the industrial demand for propene, which used to be produced from the refinement of heavy oil sourced from overseas. Our new catalyst provides a more efficient way of producing propene using lighter domestic oil sources more common in today’s market.

How has mentoring helped you as a graduate student?
My advisor, Professor Charlie Sykes, has been great throughout this journey. He knows I would like to be a professor, so he’s been really good about lifting the curtain. He’s mentored me in things like writing grants, managing a research group, and teaching, which are things that you don’t always get taught in a Ph.D. program because it is mainly focused on research. To be a professor, the skillset you need is a lot more than just research, so I appreciate his directed mentorship a lot.

Why are you committed to making science accessible to more people?
I think it’s really important to do academic outreach. Through the chemistry department, we do this cool thing called the Reverse Science Fair at local high schools. You go and present your research to high schoolers, then they work on their own projects, and six months later, you become their science fair judge.

Research scientists are often considered unapproachable, but when you talk one-on-one or in a small group with people, your science becomes a lot more digestible. We want to stimulate more interest in young students and it’s good for the scientist as well. You get used to working with hyper-specialists day-to-day in your lab. Doing outreach, you get the chance to step back and remember why you’re doing this work.

Profile written by Karen Shih.

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