Taking a hands-on approach to catalyst research

By Meghan Chua


To Keishla Rivera-Dones, chemical engineering is about more than dealing with chemical reactions; it’s about understanding the building blocks of everything.

A PhD student at UW–Madison in the Dumesic and Huber Research Groups, Rivera-Dones works with supported metal catalysts and applies them to promote and improve the efficiency of chemical reactions. The process, called catalysis, can help identify cheaper ways to make high-value chemicals, providing a better source for economic and industrial uses of those materials.

Graduate student Keishla Rivera-Dones
Graduate student Keishla Rivera-Dones works in the Dumesic and Huber labs, finding ways to improve the efficiency of chemical reactions.

“I like to know how things work and I think catalysis lets you see that at a very fundamental, very basic level,” Rivera-Dones said.

Rivera-Dones is a research assistant for the Center for Advanced Manufacturing of Chemicals, a UW2020-supported project that seeks to reduce capital costs, process energy costs, and greenhouse gas emissions in the chemical industry.

Initially, the project was looking for a way to activate methane. For this step of the project, Rivera-Dones built her own methane reactor and synthesized the catalysts herself.

“Our group is very hands-on,” she said. “Aside from the analytical instruments, which for the most part we buy from vendors, for most of our reactors we buy the parts and assemble ourselves. You wear a lot of hats.”

Since its first phase, the project has moved away from looking specifically at methane, and now explores a variety of reactions and catalysts. The lab hopes to build on existing scientific knowledge and further qualify what makes catalysts behave the way they do. Rivera-Dones said she has enjoyed the work, where every day is different.

“You get to see how a material comes together, how it reacts, how you analyze the data you’re getting, how you modify your approach and essentially try to put a story together to explain your approach and what you see,” she explained.

Rivera-Dones previously worked in industry before coming to the Chemical and Biological Engineering program at UW–Madison. She said her work in catalysis hasn’t disappointed her yet, giving her many opportunities to see what goes on behind the equipment she used to see in manufacturing plants day-to-day.

“For me, catalysis was the area to be in to figure some of those things out and get a better appreciation,” she said.

The UW2020 initiative supports innovative and groundbreaking research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison with the potential to transform a field of study. UW2020 grants are supported by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) with combined funding from the Graduate School and other sources.