Chemistry Professor's Research Leads to Patent Designed to Reduce Vehicle Emissions

By Jenny Wells-Hosley

LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 21, 2020) — Transportation is the world's largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Automakers  are challenged to meet higher standards designed to reduce vehic,le pollution. This pollution contributes to climate change and can be detrimental to human health.

Adhering to the new standards requires removing pollutants, specifically poisonous and highly reactive nitrogen oxides (NOx) from exhaust gas when a vehicle is started and the gas is still cold. The device that does this removal  — a catalytic converter — needs to be warm to efficiently remove NOx, however.

Mark Crocker, professor of chemistry in the University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences and assistant director of the Biofuels and Environmental Catalysis Group at the UK Center for Applied Energy Research (CAER), along with CAER research scientist Yaying Ji, have developed and patented a novel technology that addresses this problem.

Named “passive NOx adsorbers,” the technology uses a material that traps NOx emissions at low temperatures and then releases them at higher temperatures, when the converter has warmed up and is able to remove the NOx.

“Once they’ve reached operating temperature, present-day catalytic converters are extremely efficient, typically removing more than 99% of NOx emissions,” Crocker said. “Consequently, the majority of vehicle emissions occur during cold starts — in other words, before the catalytic converter is working properly. We conducted research on a class of materials that can effectively trap pollutants until the vehicle’s catalytic converter is warm enough to convert them to harmless products, like nitrogen and water."

 Crocker said this technology could play a critical role in creating cleaner and more efficient vehicles.

The project’s industrial partner, Luxfer MEL Technologies, is providing samples of the technology to vehicle manufacturers for evaluation.

“Solving a complex, far-reaching environmental problem is a hallmark of the UK Center for Applied Energy Research,” said CAER Director Rodney Andrews. “This work from Mark Crocker and Yaying Ji is a great example of how we partner and collaborate with the business community to develop new technologies.”

The new technology is the result of a $900,000 grant Crocker’s CAER group received from the National Science Foundation in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Vehicle Technologies Office.

Crocker, Ji and chemistry graduate student Robby Pace are looking at another class of material — zeolites — for this same purpose.

“Zeolites are potentially even more promising for trapping NOx, however, the chemistry of NOx storage in zeolites is highly complex,” Crocker said. “Funding is being provided in the form of a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Vehicle Technologies Office.”   

As part of this grant, UK CAER is partnering with the University of California, Berkeley; Purdue University; Oak Ridge National Laboratory; the Ford Motor Company; and BASF, the largest chemical producer in the world.

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion three years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" two years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for four straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.


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