Zachary Tonzetich, an associate professor in the UTSA College of Sciences’ chemistry department, is part of a duo that has been awarded a one-year, $100,000 grant from The Welch Foundation for a project that could remove carbon emissions from the atmosphere.
Tonzetich and his research collaborator Anthony Cozzolino, an associate professor in Texas Tech University’s chemistry department, were the recipients of a WelchX pilot grant this past August. The WelchX program brings together leading chemistry researchers from across Texas to address challenging issues that are relevant to society.
Tonzetich and Cozzolino’s project, “Soft Lewis Acid Directed Reductive C-C Bond Formation for the Generation of Platform Chemicals from CO2,” proposes the development of a new technology to convert carbon dioxide from a greenhouse gas to an unprocessed raw material that could be used to produce new chemical products such as fuels or polymers. If successful, this project could create a productive new area of catalysis research and reduce greenhouse emissions that are harmful to the environment.
“Our plan is to create new catalysts that can utilize CO2 to generate molecules that will be useful to chemical manufacturing,” said Tonzetich. “The advantage of using CO2 as a source is that it is abundant, readily available, and we could potentially remove it from the Earth’s atmosphere.”
Tonzetich was tapped for the research grant due to his expertise in catalysis with Earth-abundant transition metals, which are metallic elements such as iron and nickel that are more common components of earth’s crust than scarce metals such as palladium. Additionally, he is widely recognized for his work in hydrogenation and hydroboration catalysis, two methods that can be used to transform alkenes (compounds with carbon-carbon double bonds) into new products such as detergents, fuel and plastics.
This past summer, The Welch Foundation hosted a retreat in Houston. Tonzetich was among the group of early to mid-career tenured faculty from across the state invited to participate.
At the retreat, themed, “Chemistry for Sustainability,” participants were asked to explore innovative solutions to clean energy, materials production and usage that could earn them a WelchX Pilot Grant.
The retreat included activities designed to encourage discussions about research collaboration and how investigators can be successful. Participants were tasked with finding a partner and developing a new research idea. At the end of the conference, participants were asked to collaborate with their partners to produce a full research proposal to the Welch Foundation that would be due in 10 days. Although the accelerated timeline posed a challenge, Tonzetich and Cozzolino submitted their competitive proposal within the allotted time frame, resulting in this new funding.
“The retreat experience was overwhelmingly positive,” said Tonzetich. “It gave me the opportunity to connect with my peers from around the state and to learn about different viewpoints on science and collaboration.”
Tonzetich’s research interests include earth-abundant metal catalysis, bioinorganic chemistry and coordination chemistry. The Tonzetich Lab specializes in synthetic inorganic and organometallic chemistry with most of the synthetic work that occurs in the lab involving the manipulation of air and moisture-sensitive materials.
“With this funding from the Welch Foundation, we will explore a new paradigm in catalyst design that addresses the challenges of mitigating the harmful effects of carbon emissions,” said Tonzetich. “I thank the university for supporting my attendance at the WelchX Conference, which was an excellent opportunity to meet other researchers from around the state and share the exciting science taking place here at UTSA.”
The Welch Foundation is one of the largest and most established private funding sources for chemistry research in the nation. It supports fundamental chemical research at universities, colleges and other education institutions in Texas.