An Academic’s Journey to the West
Particularly in the field of engineering, the requirements of industry necessitate the impetus and direction of innovation in science and technology. Just as the Industrial Revolution sparked the beginning of industrial chemistry in the West and textile chemistry influenced the development of chemical engineering in India, the petroleum industry set in motion the foundations of chemical technology in the Middle East.
Omar Abdelrahman, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, was just venturing into his first research project studying ways to treat caustic waste from oil refineries when geopolitical events in the Middle East convinced him that a politically and environmentally sustainable future for the region can only be achieved by reducing society’s dependence on petroleum.
Growing up playing with Legos, and having a doctor and an engineer as parents, seems like it would be the emblematic prelude of a budding young scientist. What differentiates Omar Abdelrahman in his incredible journey to academia are his Middle Eastern roots. Not many professors at universities in the United States are from this region of the world. Originally from Egypt, Abdelrahman grew up in the United Arab Emirates, in a city outside of Dubai called Ajman.
“I grew up across the street from the waters of the Persian Gulf,” said Abdelrahman. Out of the nine million people in the UAE, almost 90% of the population consists of immigrants, from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and many other nations. After graduating from a high school serving more than 60 nationalities, Abdelrahman studied chemical engineering at the American University of Sharjah, where, at the time, he was the only one out of his class to apply to graduate school.
Abdelrahman was Jesse Bond’s first graduate student at Syracuse University in New York, and helped to build the framework and fabric of the catalysis lab with a focus on upgrading biomass to high-value chemical products. Abdelrahman recalls Bond instilling in him a sense of scientific rigor and how to methodically approach catalytic sciences. To this day, whenever he is poring over lab data that does not make sense, he subconsciously wonders what Jesse would say if he was looking at the data. With Bond, Abdelrahman published several articles in leading journals in the field of catalysis, such as Journal of Catalysis and ACS Catalysis.
After earning his doctorate, Abdelrahman joined Paul Dauenhauer’s lab at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Paul Dauenhauer, also the co-director of the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation (CCEI), transformed his view of science and became a mentor and good friend.
“Jesse taught me how to think. Paul taught me what to think about,” recalls Abdelrahman.
As a postdoctoral researchers in CCEI, Abdelrahman and Dauenhauer led efforts to form a new CCEI thrust, consisting of the production of diene monomers from renewable biomass compounds. Conjugated dienes, specifically 1,3-butadiene, are important building blocks in the production of synthetic rubber that go into consumer products, such as car tires and Lego bricks. Currently, almost all butadiene is produced as a byproduct of ethylene processing via naphtha steam cracking. Abdelrahman and Dauenhauer discovered a new class of catalyst, called phosphorus all silica zeolite, that is incredibly selective for the ring-opening and water removal chemistries responsible for the production of butadiene from plant-derived sugars. A center-wide effort stemmed from this pivotal study, with researchers from the University of Minnesota, University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Delaware, and University of California Santa Barbara, seeking to elucidate the nature of the active site that catalyzes the reaction.
Abdelrahman says, “I was incredibly fortunate as a postdoc to be part of such a collaborative environment and exciting work. While being in the lab myself is my first love, it is incredibly satisfying to be in advisory role to the phenomenal graduate students and postdocs both within my lab and the center.”
Now, more than a year into his position as an assistant professor, Abdelrahman has already started new collaborations across CCEI and describes the joy of mentoring his students.
“Han Chen is a methodical and gifted experimentalist and Ajibola Lawal is quite the devoted researcher and our lab cheerleader,” said Abdelrahman. Continuing his previous collaboration with Paul Dauenhauer, Abdelrahman discovered, along with a CCEI postdoctoral researcher, M. Alexander Ardagh, a method that dramatically increased catalyst performance. The mechanism called “catalytic resonance” applies waves and creates an oscillating catalytic state. In bridging thermal catalysis and electrochemistry in this new study, Abdelrahman demonstrated his constant pursuit of new skills to integrate within his research scope. Abdelrahman attributes his willingness to branch into a new field to the idea of “diversity of thought,” noting that being scientifically rigorous or a gifted experimentalist are great traits to have but are not unique in academia.
“Embrace what you have that is non-traditional and nurture it into your scientific brand,” he advises. “The field of catalysis, and science in general, thrives on those who can see a problem differently than others and propose unprecedented, paradigm-shifting solutions.”
Peppas NA (editor). 1969. One Hundred Years of Chemical Engineering: From Lewis M. Norton (M.I.T. 1888) to Present. Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Abdelrahman O, DS Park, K Vinter, C Spanjers, L Ren, HJ Cho, DG Vlachos, W Fan, M Tsapatsis, and PJ Dauenhauer. 2017. "Biomass-Derived Butadiene by Dehydra-Decyclization of Tetrahydrofuran." ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering.5(5):3732–3736.
Ardagh MA, OA Abdelrahman, and PJ Dauenhauer. 2019. "Principles of Dynamic Heterogeneous Catalysis: Surface Resonance and Turnover Frequency Response." ACS Catalysis. 9(8):6929–6937.