The U.S. Department of Energy is recognizing the work of University of Mississippi chemistry professor Kensha Clark with an Early Career Award for her research into converting waste gases into valuable products.
Clark’s goal is to create a cost-effective, clean process for converting greenhouse gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide, into value-added offerings in a way that incentivizes industries and organizations to participate.
“As academics, we get a lot of interesting fundamental knowledge,” said Clark, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry. “Often, the knowledge we gain does not translate directly to industrial change, because that change is not necessarily industrially viable.
“I am taking that industrial sensibility and applying it to a problem that affects us all: the reduction of greenhouse gases and chemical waste.”
Through her research, Clark is seeking ways to use inexpensive and sustainable metal ions to break apart the greenhouse gases and convert them to important commodity chemicals. For example, methane and carbon monoxide can be employed to make acetic acid, the major component of common household vinegar.
“The goal of the project is to find an industrially viable way or to develop an industrially viable pathway to change methane and carbon dioxide into value-added products,” she said. “Converting them into something useful will ultimately incentivize the capture and reuse of them.”
Researchers have been using expensive precious metals such as platinum to achieve the same effect. Clark believes the same can be achieved using earth-abundant – and much more affordable – metals such as copper, zinc and iron.
“Everything is chemistry,” she said. “I think it’s ultimately about doing it in a conscious way, like being cognizant of potential outcomes or the potential impact of what you’re doing will be.
“I think that there’s a way to address challenges that we have without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We can have technological scientific advances but also do them in a conscious way, thinking about the effects on our environment, the effects on society.”
The award program supports more than 80 early career researchers for five years at U.S. academic institutions, DOE national laboratories and Office of Science user facilities.
“The Department of Energy is committed to supporting rising stars in science – researchers who show great promise and a bright future,” said Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, director of the DOE Office of Science. “These individuals will be instrumental in meeting the big scientific challenges we face as a nation with innovation and passion.”
Clark joined the Ole Miss faculty in June 2022 after five years at the University of Memphis. She earned her bachelor’s from the University of Illinois at Chicago and her doctorate at the University of California at Irvine before receiving an NIH postdoctoral fellowship at Boston College in 2011.
“We want to make sure that this planet can sustain life for generations to come,” she said. “It is not just about now; it is about the impact on the future.”
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