The chemical manufacturing industry consumes approximately 10% of the energy produced worldwide and is responsible for more than 5% of global carbon emissions. Nearly all chemicals are synthesized using thermal energy generated by fossil fuel combustion, leading to the significant carbon footprint from this sector. What if there was a way to reduce the carbon footprint without requiring significant amounts of energy or high costs? That is where the 2021 Metrohm Young Chemist Award winner, Ryan Jansonius, comes in.
Ryan Jansonius is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia and a co-founder of ThorTech. He received his BSc (Hons) in Chemistry from the University of Calgary in 2016. He then went on to work at the Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation, a subsidiary of Ford and Daimler, developing ion exchange membranes for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. His research in the Berlinguette group at UBC has centered around developing technologies that use inexpensive and abundant renewable electricity to drive otherwise environmentally costly chemical transformations. ThorTech is bringing to market a unique membrane reactor technology that uses water and electricity to hydrogenate molecules relevant to the biofuel, pharmaceutical, and specialty chemical industries.
The Metrohm Young Chemist Award
Metrohm values the spirit of innovation and believes in the value of novel research performed by pioneering young scientists. At Metrohm USA, the tradition of holding a yearly contest for early career researchers has gone on for nearly a decade! Every year, between 50 and 75 entries are received to try and win a grand prize of $10,000 USD.
A panel of judges from inside and outside of the company reviews the submissions and scores the applicants’ responses to the questions on the application. Finalists are then asked a series of follow up questions from the judges and asked to summarize their role in the work and its future potential. A winner is chosen, who then presents their research at PITTCON. Watch Ryan’s presentation at PITTCON 2021 below!
Past winners of the MYCA have gone on to continue their research and broaden their horizons using the prize money to do things they otherwise would have had to pass on.
Learn more about the Metrohm Young Chemist Award here! Applicants do not have to use Metrohm instrumentation to be considered, and it plays no part in winner selection.
Decarbonizing the chemical industry
Ryan’s doctoral research at UBC focuses on finding ways to decarbonize chemical manufacturing. The production of fuels, plastics, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, and specialty chemicals consumes a significant amount of energy and is responsible for 5% of all greenhouse gas emissions. By developing ways to produce these useful chemicals using only abundant feedstocks and renewable electricity, there is an opportunity to offset these emissions.
To decarbonize chemical processes, Ryan and his group are developing a reactor that can use renewable electricity to drive chemical reactions that would otherwise require fossil fuel inputs. The type of reaction they are targeting is called «hydrogenation», and it is used in about 25% of all chemical manufacturing across several industries. Hydrogenation is a simple chemical process where hydrogen atoms are added to an unsaturated chemical feedstock.
Normally, this requires high pressure, high temperature hydrogen gas to achieve, which is extremely dangerous to handle. Conventional technology requires capital intensive hydrogenation plants for this purpose and has not changed for nearly a century.
The reactor, called «Thor», produces hydrogen through the electrolysis of water, which then passes through a thin membrane and hydrogenates an organic feedstock. What makes Thor unique is the use of a palladium membrane as a cathode, hydrogen-selective membrane, and hydrogenation catalyst simultaneously. This architecture enables the electrolysis to proceed in aqueous electrolyte while hydrogenation is mediated in organic solvent. Both reactions proceed efficiently as a result.
Team Thor (left to right): Ryan Jansonius, Natalie LeSage, Roxanna Delima, Mia Stankovic. Not pictured: Arthur Fink, Camden Hunt, Aoxue Huang, and Aiko Kurimoto. The technological innovation is defined by the large number of female group members, as shown by their lead authorship on several peer-reviewed articles (listed at the bottom of the page).
This process circumvents the use of fossil-derived H2, and the natural gas heaters required for conventional thermochemical hydrogenation reactors used industrially today. The ultimate goal is to use Thor to produce renewable diesel, pharmaceuticals, and a host of bio-derived specialty chemicals in a way that is cleaner, safer, and more cost-effective than conventional methods.
The legend of Thor(Tech)
Where did the name «Thor» originate?
Studying the palladium-hydrogen system led the Berlinguette research group to develop the Thor reactor in 2018. The inventor of the technology, Rebecca Sherbo (currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard), came up with this idea after studying the bizarre hydrogen absorption properties of palladium. The first setup and proof of concept was a tandem hydrogenation oxidation reactor. Now, instead of the paired electrolysis method they use water hydrolysis as a hydrogen source, but kept the great name to remind them of the history.
What is ThorTech? Ryan and his research team explain their project in a nutshell:
Earlier iterations of the prototype reactor developed by Ryan’s research group at UBC.
Potential commercial impact of greener technology
Thor solves key challenges with conventional hydrogenation methods by using water as a hydrogen source. Therefore, pressurized H2 gas is no longer required, which is challenging to handle and store. The reactivity of hydrogen atoms delivered to the organic feedstock in the reactor is on the order of hundreds of atmospheres. Hydrogen sourced from water can therefore be used to hydrogenate organic molecules without the use of dangerous reagents or high temperatures. Using electricity as the only energy input also enables the device to be carbon neutral if is coupled to a renewable electricity source.
A close-up view of the Thor benchtop reactor.
An expanded view of the internal parts in the flow cell.
Why choose Metrohm?
«All of the potentiostats that we use are Metrohm potentiostats in the lab. The only piece of fancy equipment or scientific equipment we need to run it [Thor] is a potentiostat. We have one big multichannel potentiostat with five or six individual channels in it, and we run all of our reactions off of that.»
A Metrohm Autolab Multichannel instrument. Each channel is a separate potentiostat/galvanostat module, allowing you to perform up to twelve measurements on just as many individual electrochemical cells.
«The thing that sets them apart from other potentiostats I’ve used is that the user interface is really good. The Metrohm software has a lot of default procedures and makes making custom procedures almost brainless, which is great.
You want to use your brain for the hard stuff, not the “set up the instrument” stuff.»
We wholeheartedly agree! For more information about potentiostats from Metrohm Autolab, visit the website.
The next steps
The Thor team is currently working to develop membranes that use less palladium, designing flow cells to increase reaction rates and efficiency, and screening catalysts that enable a broader scope of feedstocks to be hydrogenated in Thor.
Dr. Aiko Kurimoto, a postdoctoral fellow on the Thor team has shown that depositing thin layers of different catalysts on the palladium cathode leads to substantially higher reactivities. This work was published in Angewandte Chemie (2021).
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced research activities across the globe, and it is no different for our Metrohm Young Chemist Award winner. After spending nearly six months outside of the lab, social distancing measures made it difficult for Ryan to finish up his doctoral work. If an experiment failed, an entire week of work could be lost because of the need to stagger attendance. Ultimately, the team moved to a larger unoccupied space close by in order to continue their work.
How will the MYCA prize money be used?
After completing his doctorate, Ryan had planned to put all efforts into his start-up company ThorTech based on the research he contributed to. However, the transition from graduate researcher to start-up co-founder is quite an expensive one.
«It [the prize] couldn’t have come at a better time! I’m just now starting to appreciate how expensive transitioning [to industry] is.»
He wants to take some time off to work on the company before investment capital comes in, and the prize money will be instrumental to help him do this. Additionally, a bit of rest and recharge is needed after finishing his degree!
Ryan defends his Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia in May 2021, and we wish him the very best of luck. To learn more about the research of Ryan and his team, selected peer-reviewed literature is provided below.
Selected literature for further reading:
- Sherbo, R.S.; Delima, R.S.; Chiykowski, V.A.; et al. Complete electron economy by pairing electrolysis with hydrogenation. Nat. Catal. 2018, 1, 501–507. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41929-018-0083-8
This is the first article published on the Thor reactor.
- Sherbo, R.S.; Kurimoto, A.; Brown, C.M.; et al. Efficient Electrocatalytic Hydrogenation with a Palladium Membrane Reactor. JACS 2019, 141, 7815–782. https://doi.org/10.1021/jacs.9b01442
Thor enables ~65% more energy efficient hydrogenation reactions than can be achieved using normal electrochemical hydrogenation methods.
- Delima, R.S.; Sherbo, R.S.; Dvorak, D.J.; et al. Supported palladium membrane reactor architecture for electrocatalytic hydrogenation. J. Mater. Chem. A 2019, 7, 26586–26595. https://doi.org/10.1039/c9ta07957b
This article describes a design for palladium membranes that uses 25x less palladium than conventional Pd foils.
- Kurimoto, A.; Sherbo, R.S.; Cao, Y.; et al. Electrolytic deuteration of unsaturated bonds without using D2. Nat. Catal. 2020, 3, 719–726. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41929-020-0488-z
Thor can also be used to deuterate (hydrogenate, but with heavy water) organic molecules. A video describing the technology is found here.
- Jansonius, R.P.; Kurimoto, A.; Marelli, A.M.; et al. Hydrogenation without H2 Using a Palladium Membrane Flow Cell. Cell Reports Physical Science, 2020, 1, 100105. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.xcrp.2020.100105
This article shows a designed and validated scalable flow cell architecture, enabling 15x faster, and 2x more efficient hydrogenation reactions.
- Huang, A.; Cao, Y.; Delima, R.S.; et al. Electrolysis Can Be Used to Resolve Hydrogenation Pathways at Palladium Surfaces in a Membrane Reactor. JACS Au 2021, 1, 336-343. https://doi.org/10.1021/jacsau.0c00051
Thor can also be used to resolve complex reaction mechanisms by depositing nanoparticles on the surface of the membrane.
Post written by Dr. Alyson Lanciki, Scientific Editor at Metrohm International Headquarters, Herisau, Switzerland.
Special thanks go to Ryan Jansonius for taking the time before his doctoral defense to contribute to this article.