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Chemistry Overview 

Nancy Jackson

Senior Member of Technical Staff
Sandia National Laboratories
Albuquerque, NM

B.S. - Chemistry, George Washington University
M.S. - Chemical Engineering, University of Texas Austin
Ph.D. - Chemical Engineering, University of Texas Austin
Senior Member of Technical Staff

Nancy Jackson, senior member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratory, directs catalysis research in the Catalysis and Chemical Technologies department in the Energy and Environment sector at Sandia.

A catalyst makes a reaction happen. In a process known as catalysis, a relatively small amount of foreign material, called a catalyst, augments the rate of a chemical reaction without itself getting involved in the reaction. A catalyst can make a reaction go faster and in a more selective manner. Because of its ability to speed up some reactions and not others, a catalyst enables a chemical process to work more efficiently and often with less waste. Hence, catalysts are important in industrial chemistry.

Jackson's research is in heterogeneous catalysis- the use of catalysts which are in a separate phase from the reactants. In heterogeneous catalysis, the reactants, which are usually in gaseous or liquid phases, flows through a reactor and sorbs onto the surface of a solid catalyst. A reaction takes place and then the reactants desorb. The reactants are taken downstream for further use, and the catalyst remains unchanged in the process.

Understanding the structure and chemistry of the surface of the catalyst is essential because that's where the reaction takes place, says Jackson. Because the reaction takes place on the surface of the catalyst, these materials can work efficiently in small amounts.

Jackson says, "Industry prefers heterogeneous catalysis because it is less messy than homogenous catalysis and there is no difficulty in separating the products from the catalyst at the end of the process." In homogeneous catalysis, the catalysts, reactants, and products are usually liquids. It is usually difficult and expensive to separate them.

Sandia and other national laboratories working in the national interest are involved in the area of alternative fuels development. At Sandia, Jackson is directing research on identifying catalysts that enable production of liquid fuels, primarily diesel fuel, from sources other than petroleum. These alternative hydrocarbon sources can be coal, natural gas, or biomass.

Jackson went to work for the American Chemical Society after getting her degree in chemistry. In her job at ACS, she learned about the kinds of jobs that were available to those with a degree in the chemical sciences and also discovered that she wanted to be more on the technical side work in the sciences. "I was interested in applied chemistry and liked applying chemistry to practical problems." She went to graduate school and got a master's and Ph.D. in chemical engineering since, she says, on the graduate level chemical engineering embodies applied chemistry.

"Jackson says that when she was initially drawn to chemistry, she was fascinated by the pretty colors of the metals and the fun things she could do with them in the lab. Her interest in this, inorganic chemistry, led her in part to catalysis which is one application of inorganic chemistry; her exposure to prominent scientists after obtaining her undergraduate degree placed an emphasis on her choice of a career in catalysis.


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