Ben Wilhite Captures NSF CAREER Award

Assistant professor of Chemical, Materials & Biomolecular Engineering Benjamin Wilhite has received a National Science Foundation Early Career Development (CAREER) Award that will support his research aimed at improving the harvesting of hydrogen from green hydrocarbons (biofuels). The $400,000, five-year award is the third CAREER Award garnered by UConn engineering faculty in 2008 and the 19th CAREER award within the School of Engineering since 1996.

Dr. Wilhite will focus his efforts on the development of multi-functional catalytic membranes capable of breaking down green hydrocarbons (e.g., methanol, ethanol, butanol) into high-purity hydrogen. Current routes for hydrogen harvesting require the use of permselective barriers for purifying hydrogen produced by either steam reforming or partial oxidation reactions; these permselective barriers reduce overall hydrogen production rates and are fabricated from costly materials, such as palladium and silver. Dr. Wilhite’s research will instead focus upon using purely catalytic membranes for achieving high-purity hydrogen production. To achieve this, he will create multiple unique catalytic regions within the membrane (for fuels reforming, carbon monoxide cleanup, heat generation) while controlling reaction rates and selectivities by externally manipulating thermal and concentration gradients. If successful, this research effort will provide a breakthrough reduction in the cost of hydrogen production and a key contribution to the creation of a clean, sustainable hydrogen economy.

In 2007, Dr. Wilhite was awarded a three-year Office of Naval Programs Young Investigator Program (YIP) award for his work involving a new class of micro-channel reactors capable of efficiently producing hydrogen for use in fuel cells by clever design of thermal gradients and heat integration in multi-stage microreformers. He also received a DuPont Young Faculty grant in 2007. Dr. Wilhite received his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Notre Dame du Lac in 2003. He spent three years as research associate and research scientist within the Microsystems Technology Laboratory and Microchemical Systems Research Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined the chemical engineering faculty at UConn in 2005 and has played an important role in the Center for Clean Energy Engineering and the Connecticut Biofuels Consortium.