Gilbertson wins prestigious award from NSF

Western Washington University assistant professor of chemistry John Gilbertson has been awarded a prestigious five-year, $470,000 Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation for his research into breaking down harmful greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and transforming them into useful compounds.

The award was one of only a handful given out to master’s-granting institutions like Western, (less than 10 percent of all such awards were given to faculty at these institutions last year) and is the University’s third such award in three years; Associate Professor of Chemistry Greg O’Neil was awarded a similar grant last year for his research into the utilization of algae as a biofuel and Janelle Leger of Western’s Applied Materials Science and Engineering Center was awarded one in 2011 for her work on the use of polymers in electronics.

Gilbertson and his team of students are investigating how to use cheap, Earth-abundant metals to transform the typically unreactive carbon dioxide molecule into useful chemicals and fuels, such as syngas and methanol.

“Nature does a similar thing in photosynthesis – it recycles carbon dioxide by turning it into a fuel (sugar),” he said. “What we’re doing is using a catalyst to assist in the breaking-down process as we recycle it into a different fuel. It takes energy to break these molecules down and combine them back together, and if the catalyst isn’t extremely efficient, it takes much more energy to do the process than you save in the long run.”

One practical application of Gilbertson’s research is a parallel use of the existing Coal-to-Liquids process that turns coal into syngas; but Gilbertson’s processes eliminate the need to use coal altogether.

“Coal to liquids is the formation of syngas, and ultimately diesel fuel, from the gasification of coal. Our process is similar to that except that we are using abundant and readily available carbon dioxide as our carbon source ­– replacing coal – to make syngas,” he said.

Gas-to-Liquids technology, using the current boom on natural gas production in North America, also offers similar paths for Gilbertson and his researchers.

The research component of his award will fund two undergraduates and one graduate student per year as research assistants.

“Our undergraduate students have a real impact on research that is changing the world,” Gilbertson said. “They are incredibly talented.”

Besides the research component to the grant, the award also funds a curricular/outreach effort that Gilbertson is tentatively calling “Scientist Citizen;” Gilbertson will be working with a student team to produce and disseminate, through traditional and digital media outlets such as YouTube and public television, a series of videos focused on science-education topics of regional and national interest.

“Reaching out to the community about relevant scientific topics is vital in our society, especially with so many daunting scientific problems facing us and future generations. Our goal is to get the information out there so that people can make informed decisions when it comes to science policy,” he said.

For more information on Gilbertson’s research or his Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation, contact him at