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Photo of Assistant Professor Jakub Hyvl’s research group taken before the COVID-19 pandemic.

A University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa project to replace expensive metals with a cheaper, non-toxic material received a major boost from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The $670,000 NSF career grant will assist Department of Chemistry Assistant Professor Jakub Hyvl’s project to study bismuth compounds, which could be an alternative to costly metals such as platinum and palladium. There are two components to fulfill the career grant: research and education.

Research component

Metals, such as platinum and palladium, are most widely used in catalytic converters of car exhaust systems to remove toxic agents such as carbon monoxide and nitric oxides, preventing them from becoming pollutants. They are also prevalent in the pharmaceutical and agricultural industries facilitating chemical transformations that will not proceed well without catalysis, the process of increasing the rate of a chemical reaction.

Hyvl’s group is actively exploring bismuth chemistry, and recently published preliminary results for bismuth compounds and discovered a new catalytic process, making the chemistry more practical. Bismuth, a non-toxic substance, is 15 times cheaper than platinum. It is also commonly known as the main ingredient of Pepto-Bismol. Expanding the use of bismuth would be a safer alternative, and also applicable for pharmaceutical and agricultural industrial uses.

Education component

Hyvl intends to collaborate with existing and well-established programs such as local science fairs, U.S. National Chemistry Olympiad, Native Hawaiian Science and Engineering Mentorship Program and local science teachers to engage middle and high school students, with a focus on Native Hawaiian and other underrepresented students.

“Preparation of the next generation of scientists and engineers is probably the most important mission of our college,” Hyvl said. “I believe this mission will be most successful by starting at early stages of the education process. I really enjoy working with students and this grant will allow me to dedicate more time to them.”

Hyvl’s five-year project launched on March 1.

This project is an example of UH Mānoa’s goal of Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF), one of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.

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