Michele Sarazen joins Princeton faculty, aims for cleaner fuels and chemicals

Tuesday, Jan 15, 2019
by Scott Lyon

Michele L. Sarazen has been appointed assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, bringing a focus on new ways to harness traditional methods for a clean-energy future.

Sarazen comes to Princeton from the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she was a postdoctoral research fellow. Her research centers on catalysis, the processes by which a chemical reaction is accelerated via an agent — known as a catalyst — that is not consumed by the reaction itself.

Catalytic techniques were first described by 18th-century chemist Elizabeth Fulhame and went on to play an essential role in the fossil-fuels industry throughout the 20th century. Sarazen sees potential to advance the field of catalysis in ways that leverage its history and reduce the impacts of energy production on the global environment.

"Catalysis is one of the founding avenues to studying chemical engineering," Sarazen said. "My interest lies in how to use the science to move forward, toward cleaner fuels and cleaner energy in general."

Her recent work focuses on the study of catalytic materials that work across a wide range of reactants, sourced from various feedstocks. "I want a way to study materials that are feedstock agnostic, to be adaptable to new, cleaner feedstocks as they become available," she said.

This approach entails two main lines of inquiry: seeking novel transformations that make use of environmentally friendly materials, and, as a stepping stone to that larger goal, finding materials that can accelerate current transformations more efficiently. The former looks deep into the nature of these processes in search of fundamental shifts and long-term impacts. The latter seeks near- and medium-term solutions to known problems using established science.

Early in life, Sarazen was motivated by her parents’ dedication as high school teachers and even considered following her father's footsteps into a career in history. But, as she approached college, her interests in chemistry and mathematics took over. Still, education has remained central to her career. "Teaching, and that love of teaching in the classroom, has always been there," she said.

Sarazen studied chemical engineering at both The Pennsylvania State University and at the University of California, Berkeley, where she obtained her Ph.D. She began researching catalysis as a sophomore at Penn State, working for three years in the laboratory of professor Robert Rioux. At Berkeley she continued her interest in heterogeneous catalysts while working with professor Enrique Iglesia '77, who advised her dissertation.

She starts advising graduate students in the spring 2019 term and will teach Chemical Reactor Engineering (CBE 504) beginning in the fall.