Sheima Khatib received the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award for her work using catalysis to convert methane into benzene.
Sheima Khatib, an assistant professor in Texas Tech University's Department of Chemical Engineering in the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering, was awarded the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award for her work designing catalysts that help convert the greenhouse gas methane into the upgraded commodities benzene and hydrogen.
"When I heard the news about this award, I was ecstatic," Khatib said. "Receiving an NSF CAREER Award is an honor and a relief as it recognizes the importance of the topic we are researching and provides us with the funding we need to continue developing scientific insights in our field."
Al Sacco Jr., dean of the College of Engineering, praised Khatib's strong research impact in the chemical engineering field.
"I am very proud of Dr. Khatib's accomplishments since she has been in the college," Sacco said. "This is a fitting recognition of her outstanding performance as a faculty member here at Texas Tech. This award recognizes that she is among the elite researchers in the country."
The CAREER Award is the NSF's most prestigious award in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through research, education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations. It also comes with a monetary grant, of which Khatib received $593,117.
"My students and I worked incredibly hard the past four years developing stable catalysts capable of transforming natural gas to upgraded chemical commodities," Khatib said. "The process, known as methane aromatization, consists in converting methane, which is the main component of natural gas, to benzene and hydrogen. Both of these molecules are used in the chemical manufacturing industry for production of plastics, lubricants, dyes, detergents, pesticides and fertilizers. While this process currently is not commercialized, our results show we are getting closer to this becoming a reality."
Currently, most of the natural gas that is extracted is burnt in power plants, and part of it is used for production of other chemicals. But, due to lack of transportation infrastructures, much of this resource is being flared. For example, one just has to drive a few miles out west toward Midland-Odessa before seeing these flares happening in the oil fields, causing huge emissions of carbon dioxide.
"The catalysts we have developed in our lab help convert natural gas to upgraded products directly, thus avoiding the need to transport the gas elsewhere before processing it," Khatib said. "This mitigates two problems at once: instead of burning a valuable resource and emitting a greenhouse gas in the process, we are converting it to useful products on-site while reducing harmful emissions."
Khatib will continue her research on catalysis, but also will focus on making it more efficient by incorporating a reactor design component into her work.
"We will target the funding we have received from the NSF CAREER Award to research that will utilize the catalyst design knowledge we have developed in our lab in the past years and combine it with a unique reactor setup that will make the methane aromatization reaction more economically viable," she said. "In this way, we will establish a synergy between catalyst and reactor design, using both these angles to tackle the challenges of direct methane upgrade processes."
For the educational aspect of the CAREER Award, Khatib is collaborating with Jesse Jou, an assistant professor of directing in the university's School of Theatre & Dance, housed within the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts, to show scientists and engineers in a different light to the general public.
"The goal in the outreach/education part of the project is to create a friendlier and more approachable image of scientists and engineers for non-STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) populations," Khatib said. "Many people associate us with boring and indecipherable data and bullet points. What we want to do here is to take the 'data' of scientists' lives and, with that, build their stories, showing them as the real, dynamic people they are, doing impactful work that can improve our world. I believe we can certainly tap more closely into people's emotions and create a greater awareness of the roles that scientists and engineers play in society with these stories.
"This project allows me to fulfill one of my dreams of being more involved with theater. I will be collaborating with the School of Theatre & Dance at Texas Tech on a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) project where we will interview active scientists and engineers to capture their stories, which will be developed into monologues and plays by Professor Jou, and performed by Texas Tech student actors at local schools and theaters. With this, we hope to connect with non-STEM populations and inspire more people at a younger age to understand and trust science and be drawn to careers in STEM fields."