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Andlinger Center News

October 5, 2015

Paul Chirik-2

As the new associate director for external partnerships for the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, Paul Chirik will be leading Princeton E-ffiliates Partnership by creating new connections between industry and Princeton. He will be overseeing collaborations between E-ffiliates and existing corporate members, and evaluating other opportunities to partner with additional corporations as well as non-profit, governmental, and international entities.

Chirik’s innovative research focuses on green chemistry, specifically on creating chemical catalysts for manufacturing. Catalysts are usually derived from rare, precious metals, but Chirik and his group of researchers are looking at earth-abundant elements as alternatives.

In this interview, Chirik talks about his research and his role at the Andlinger Center.

What is your research focus?

I am a synthetic chemist. We study a part of chemistry and science called catalysis. It’s a branch of science where you discover compounds to make reactions go faster or to make them more selective, meaning you don’t generate waste and often use less energy inputs.

An example of catalysis?

You are sitting on a cushion right now. What’s in that cushion is a foam. In order to make that foam, you take two liquids. And if you pour these liquids together, they do nothing. But if you put a little bit of pixie dust there, a little bit of dust, that’s a catalyst. And what that catalyst will do is turn those liquids into that foam. The question is – what is that little dust I put there to make that reaction happen? Right now, it’s platinum. You don’t realize it, but you are sitting on foam that has a little bit of one of the rarest elements in the Periodic Table. That’s expensive.

You don’t realize it as a consumer, but you are buying platinum. You probably have spatulas in your kitchen. If I walk into your kitchen and ask what’s that? You will say it’s a rubber-tip spatula. It’s not a rubber-tip spatula. It’s made of silicone. It has a little bit of platinum in it.

Most of the time when scientists make these catalysts, they work with really exotic elements in the Periodic Table. So what we are trying to do in my lab is to perform catalysis with what we call earth-abundant elements such as iron or cobalt. There is a lot of these elements on the planet.

Why make an earth-abundant catalyst?

If you do a life-cycle analysis and you look at all the energy inputs to make that foam or that kitchen spatula, you have to dig platinum out of the ground. It probably came out of a mine in South Africa. To get one ounce of platinum, a very little bit, you probably had to dig up 10 tons of earth to get one ounce.  So when you dig up ten tons of earth, what do you think is digging up that earth? Well, a huge machine. What’s running that huge machine? Oil. So when you burn that oil, what do you make? Carbon dioxide. You have a carbon dioxide footprint to get that pixie dust to make that foam. That’s a problem.

We are trying to do all of this with iron because iron is cheap and abundant. You don’t have to dig it out of a mine in South Africa. We call ourselves modern alchemists. What an alchemist claimed to do is take lead and transform it into gold. We are trying to do the same thing but with function – take a hunk of rust and get it to function ideally better than one of those really exotic metals.

What is your role at E-ffiliates?

One of the main parts of my job is to identify areas of mutual interest between what’s going on with research in the center and with various companies.

The idea is to get companies involved and to foster interactions with Princeton researchers, students, and other member companies. I think this is a really unique opportunity for academic-industrial collaborations and for the companies to engage in research.

Could you please talk about ExxonMobil and the new partnership between them and the University?

Right now, we are starting our relationship with ExxonMobil. They have very diverse interests in the energy landscape and my job is to help navigate them to the right people. They have interest in fusion research, which involves folks over at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab. They have policy interests, so that means interfacing with people at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. They obviously have photovoltaic, solar energy harvesting, and carbon management interests – so that’s going to be engineering, geosciences and chemistry. That’s my job – to basically be a liaison between scientific and technical components that exist on campus and the companies.

But there’s another component of the job, which I think is arguably just as important or more important, and that is: what’s the next ExxonMobil? What other companies should we be engaging with? That is tricky – that is the hard part of the job.

Networking comes in. This a multi-component approach. We work with Princeton’s Corporate and Foundation Relations office (CFR) to make that initial connection with companies. They handle that side of things. And when there is an interest from a company, that’s when people like myself and Robin Hauer, assistant director of E-ffiliates, take over.

Robin is the more day-to-day concierge, running the E-ffiliates program. My job is when you are talking to these companies, they say, “Hey, does Princeton have anybody doing anything on carbon capture?” I say, “Yes, we do! We have this great group of people.” Basically Robin and I offer them two different services: someone who can act as a technical interpreter for the companies and someone who can be a liaison between Andlinger and industry.