By Prof. Jonas Baltrusaitis, Ph.D., Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Lehigh University, and Awardee of the 2020 ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering Lectureship
In spite of the pandemic, the world is experiencing unprecedented economic growth together with an increasing population, requiring relentless use of our natural resources, such as air, water, hydrocarbons and other common nutrients. For this reason, sustainable resource management and use, as well as the utilization of waste, are necessary in order to minimize significant negative environmental impacts. In an inextricably-linked landscape of energy and nutrients, one must weigh factors such as availability and price, as well as the effects of their extraction on the environment in general, and climate change in particular. Flexible fundamental, as well as engineering, solutions, currently not quite available, are needed in order to ensure our continuing prosperous existence.
As a precautious boy growing up in an industrialized city in Lithuania, I was always wondering about the giant plume of white steam coming out of the large fertilizer-producing tower exhaust. My childhood friends would often advise me that said fertilizers are made by utilizing air, which always made me wonder about the underlying basics of such a process. Little did I know, I would have a chance to have first-hand experience in designing, controlling and, later, improving fertilizer production technologies.
My journey in green and sustainable chemistry started when I joined the workforce, right after graduating with a Masters in Chemical Engineering degree. As a junior process engineer, I was tasked with relocating a large fertilizer production facility across Europe. The success of the biggest project of my early career was largely based on my empirical understanding of exothermal reaction design and control, evaporation, distillation, granulation and other core chemical engineering principles acquired during my undergraduate years.
The overall experience, however, increased my interest in the fundamentals of nitrogen and carbon surface chemistry and catalysis. For this reason, I left the industry and obtained my Ph.D. in physical chemistry with Prof. Vicki Grassian at the University of Iowa. Ever since I have worn two hats—one of the chemical engineer and one of the chemist—and I would not have it any other way. While being an engineer helps me to conceptualize problems of societal significance and devise practical solutions, the skills of a chemist allow me to do this using scientific principles. A case in point is my recent work on mechanochemical synthesis of urea cocrystals to create multifunctional nutrient containing fertilizer materials. Milling, often utilized on a small scale in organic synthesis, proved to be an efficient and scalable process that afforded 100% urea conversion into complex ionic cocrystals, previously synthesized using solution crystallization methods.
My particular journey has made me a poster child of STEM—due to my lifelong practical and educational experience in both fundamental sciences, chemical engineering science, and as a practicing chemical engineer. However, it was not premeditated or systematically pursued, and was instead a result of personal exploration. In retrospect, I wish that I had been encouraged to this end at the beginning of my career. Needless to say, with my own students, I encourage them to engage in interdisciplinary research and practical hands-on experience.
As a capstone process design instructor at Lehigh University, I am often a mediator between the industry and academia, and I would not have it any other way. My chemical engineering education experience revolves around the so-called Active Learning concept, where students are engaged in a controlled combination of reading, writing, discussion and problem-solving to promote analytical understanding of the class content. Based on Edgar Dale (Audio-Visual Methods in Technology, Holt, Rinehart and Winston), we only remember 10% of what we read and 20% of what we hear. About 50% of visual information is retained after two weeks, compared to 70% of what we say and 90% of what we both say and do. As such, I will always encourage meaningful and impactful ways of evolving chemical engineering education that includes the engagement of practicing engineers.