West Chester University


Sustainability Research in Chemistry

Chemistry is intimately and inherently involved in the transformations of energy into work and useful applications. The chemical industry has tremendously increased its output while decreasing the amount of energy used per unit of product produced. Any implementations of new energy technologies will require the input of the chemical industry.


Catalysis and recapturing process heat are the primary means by which the chemical industry reduces its energy use. More than 1% of the world's energy consumption is used to produce ammonia (a primary component of fertilizer). The industrious work of chemists and chemical engineers has reduced the amount of energy required to produce ammonia by one quarter since Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch introduced the catalytic process required for its synthesis. Therefore, instead of using the equivalent of 2 billion barrels of oil, it "only" requires 500 million barrels of oil per year to supply the energy used in the synthesis of ammonia.

A catalyst is a material that accelerates a chemical reaction without itself being consumed in a reaction. In the case of ammonia synthesis, iron particles, which are only a few nanometers in size, act as the catalyst. Nitrogen molecules (N2) and hydrogen molecules (H2) dissociate on the surface of the iron particles to form N atoms and H atoms. These atoms then reassemble to form ammonia (NH3), which then leaves the surface of the catalyst. The catalyst is then ready to accept more N2 and H2 and produce more NH3.

To learn more about catalysis and nanoscience visit this site.


There are numerous materials chemistry challenges that address sustainability.

Building materials are an active frontier of materials chemistry. Just like smart windons, the materials in the walls of a building no longer need to be passive. Dynamic materials repond to changes in the environment (temperature or illumination). Chemists are creating materials that can go into walls. They are coated with, for instance, special waxes, that melt when the temperature increase. This allows them to absorb heat. Then when the walls cool, the wax solidifies and releases the stored heat. Thus, the walls dynamically react to changing conditions and help to regulate the temperature of the room without requiring as much heating and cooling from external sources.

Green Chemistry

Green chemistry differs from previous approaches to many environmental issues. Rather than using regulatory restrictions, it unleashes the creativity and innovation of our scientists and engineers in designing and discovering the next generation of chemicals and materials so that they provide increased performance and increased value while meeting all goals to protect and enhance human health and the environment.

You can learn more about this subject at the Green Chemistry Institute.


A biorefinery is a facility that integrates biomass conversion processes and equipment to produce fuels, power, and chemicals from biomass. The biorefinery concept is analogous to today's petroleum refineries, which produce multiple fuels and products from petroleum. Industrial biorefineries have been identified as the most promising route to the creation of a new domestic biobased industry.

You can learn more about the technologies that are being developed to more efficiently harness biomass here.

More information on biorefineries is available from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Research at WCU

At WCU, the Department of Chemistry has a strong focus on materials chemistry woven into its teaching and research involving the traditional branches of chemistry.

Kurt W Kolasinski: The study of etching and growth for control of surface structure and porous solid formation.

Black Silicon

My research focuses on preparation and characterization of surface structures and porous solids. Silicon is one of my favorite materials but we also work on titanium, aluminum and their oxides. By making micro- and nanostructures, we can change the properties of materials. As shown in the figure, we can turn silicon from a reflective silvery looking material into a black material that reflects virtually no sunlight. This is an interesting property for, for example, solar cells. To create black silicon, we use a pulsed laser to etch pillars into the surface of the sample.  right arrow

Visible Photoluminescence

left arrow  Alternatively, we can use chemical etching to turn a silicon crystal into nanocrystalline porous silicon, which has many interesting properties including that this glows, giving off visible light when it is excited by ultraviolet light.

Nanocrystalline semiconductors are of interest for a number of applications related to energy, for instance, in thin film solar cells such as the Graetzel cell. These solar cells can be configured to produce electricity or else for direct production of hydrogen.

Nanocrystalline silicon has potential uses in sensing, drug delivery and optoelectronics. It has also been used as a membrane in fuel cells. In addition, silicon has a much greater capacity for lithium than does graphite. Therefore, porous silicon may find application in advanced battery designs with much greater capacity than current designs.