Engineering Organic Electrosynthesis Processes for Sustainable Chemical Manufacturing


Wednesday, September 29, 2021 - 8:45am


ENGR II 1519


Miguel A. Modestino – New York University


The chemical industry produces more than 70,000 products (1.2 billion tons in total) via thermal processes powered by fossil fuel combustion, accounting for ~5% of the US energy utilization and >30% of the US energy-derived industrial CO2 emissions. Maintaining the output of this industry while eliminating its emissions requires aggressive measures and the transformation of most industrial chemical processes. Electrochemical manufacturing is central to this transformation as it enables the direct integration of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, with chemical manufacturing. Currently, however, two major challenges prevent the deployment of electrochemical reactors at scale: their low selectivity and their low production rates.

This presentation will discuss electrochemical engineering advances to enhance the performance of organic electrosynthesis reactions. Specifically, I will present our work on understanding and improving the production of adiponitrile (ADN), a precursor to Nylon 6,6, via the electrohydrodimerization of acrylonitrile (AN). Our investigations on ADN are aimed at uncovering the relationship between the electrochemical environment at and near the electrical double layer (EDL) and reaction performance metrics (i.e., selectivity, efficiency, and productivity). I will discuss general guidelines for electrolyte formulation and provide insights into the role of different electrolyte species (e.g., buffer ions, chelating ions, selectivity-directing ions, and supporting ions) in achieving conversions of AN to ADN with selectivity as high as 83%. I will also present how carefully controlling pulsed electrosynthesis conditions guided by active machine learning can help mitigate mass transport limitations, control the concentration of AN near the EDL and enhance the production rate of ADN by >30%. Our learnings on ADN electrosynthesis helped us to also engineer the electrocatalytic hydrogenation of ADN to hexamethylenediamine (a Nylon 6,6 monomer), achieving the highest reported selectivity to date for this reaction (>95%). Leveraging our experience on ADN electrochemical reactions, my group continues to investigate electrochemical pathways for the electrification petrochemical processes with large carbon footprint.


Miguel A. Modestino is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering of New York University (NYU). Miguel obtained his B.S in Chemical Engineering (2007) and M.S. in Chemical Engineering Practice (2008) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley (2013). From 2013-2016, he was a post-doctoral researcher at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland where he served as project manager for the Solar Hydrogen Integrated Nano-electrolysis (SHINE) project. He is a winner of the Global Change Award from the H&M Foundation (2016), the MIT Technology Review Innovators Under 35 Award in Latin America (2017) and Globally (2020), the ACS Petroleum Research Fund Doctoral New Investigator Award (2018), the NSF CAREER Award (2019), the Inaugural NYU Tandon Junior Faculty Research Award (2020), and the NYU Goddard Junior Faculty Fellowship Award (2020). His research group at NYU focusses on the development of electrochemical technologies for the incorporation of renewable energy into chemical manufacturing. He is also co-founder of Sunthetics Inc., a startup developing electrochemical reactors and machine learning solutions to accelerate the development of sustainable chemical manufacturing processes.

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