Staff Sheehan

Staff Sheehan

Vitals

Current affiliation: Catalytic Innovations

Age: 28

Ph.D. alma mater: Yale University

Advice for young scientists: “Perform your experiments soundly, and collect reproducible data. Nobody is right all the time, but well-collected data is always an asset.”

If I were an element, I would be: Iridium. “It’s extremely resilient and tough to corrode, yet versatile in that it can access 12 different oxidation states under the right conditions.”

Before he began grad school, Staff Sheehan had already started two technology companies using programming skills he taught himself as a teenager. So it’s not a surprise that Sheehan, now 28, is using his academic training in electrochemistry as an entrepreneur.

Sheehan has selected an audacious target for his start-up, Catalytic Innovations. He is building an electrochemical cell to make fuels and chemicals using only water, carbon dioxide, and energy from the sun. Although some so-called solar fuel devices have shown promise in the lab, the idea has proved difficult to commercialize.

If he manages to make it work, Sheehan would be making good on a vague ambition that has stuck with him since high school. “I was studying climate change and decided I wanted to make a ‘box’ to solve the problem,” Sheehan says. He has been steadily making progress toward a climate-friendly device that transforms water and CO2 ever since.

As a freshman at Boston College, Sheehan quickly got to work in Dunwei Wang’s lab, where he researched new materials for energy conversion and storage. He continued to build his energy knowledge while a graduate student in Charles Schmuttenmaer’s group at Yale University. While in grad school, Sheehan first made gold-coated nanoparticles to improve the performance of dye-sensitized solar cells, then moved on to artificial photosynthesis, which called for making new catalysts.

Research at a glance


Sheehan is harnessing energy from the sun to make fuel and other chemicals. His electrochemical cell uses electrons generated by solar cells plus two types of catalysts to power dual chemical reactions that produce the fuel ethanol.
 Credit: Yang H. Ku/C&EN/Shutterstock

Sheehan is harnessing energy from the sun to make fuel and other chemicals. His electrochemical cell uses electrons generated by solar cells plus two types of catalysts to power dual chemical reactions that produce the fuel ethanol.
Credit: Yang H. Ku/C&EN/Shutterstock

Catalysts are the secret sauce of an efficient solar fuel cell. They help break the molecular bonds of water and CO2 and reassemble the atoms into useful fuels and chemicals, such as ethanol. At Yale, Sheehan developed water-splitting catalysts with chemistry professor Gary Brudvig and Paul Anastas, director of Yale’s Center for Green Chemistry & Green Engineering.

Catalyst-driven electrochemistry is also used in metal refining and petrochemical production. So Sheehan summoned his Yale training to help Catalytic Innovations make catalysts for industry. The firm sells its iridium catalysts through Strem Chemicals.

Anastas has joined Sheehan at the start-up. “It is in Staff’s veins to take science and turn it into commercial reality,” Anastas says. “He’s really just that good.”

Three key papers

“Commercializing Solar Fuels within Today’s Markets” (Chem. 2017, DOI: 10.1016/j.chempr.2017.06.003)

“A Molecular Catalyst for Water Oxidation That Binds to Metal Oxide Surfaces” (Nat. Commun. 2015, DOI:10.1038/ncomms7469)

“Selective Electrochemical Oxidation of Lactic Acid Using Iridium-Based Catalysts” (Ind. Eng. Chem. Res. 2017, DOI: 10.1021/acs.iecr.6b05073)


Sheehan spoke at the American Chemical Society national meeting on Aug. 21 in Washington, D.C., about artificial synthesis as a path to renewable, environmentally friendly fuels. But this is a long-term goal, and the “solar sorcerer” expects his catalytic innovations to be economically viable now. Watch to hear him explain how.
Credit: C&EN/ACS Productions

Vitals

Current affiliation: Catalytic Innovations

Age: 28

Ph.D. alma mater: Yale University

Advice for young scientists: “Perform your experiments soundly, and collect reproducible data. Nobody is right all the time, but well-collected data is always an asset.”

If I were an element, I would be: Iridium. “It’s extremely resilient and tough to corrode, yet versatile in that it can access 12 different oxidation states under the right conditions.”

Corinna Schindler
Bozhi Tian