Upcycling plastics, sustainable catalysis expert Michele Sarazen wins NSF CAREER Award

Written by
Scott Lyon, Office of Engineering Communications
Feb. 19, 2024

Michele Sarazen, an expert in catalysis and green chemistry, has won a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation, one of the top honors for early-career researchers.

The award comes as part of NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development Program that supports junior faculty who exemplify leadership in education and research. It comes with nearly $600,000 in research funding over five years.

Sarazen, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering and associated faculty in the Princeton Materials Institute, will use the grant to investigate chemical processes that breakdown plastic waste and use those deconstructed products to make valuable fuels and chemicals. Catalysts offer a path to making those processes more sustainable by lowering the overall energy needed to drive them and by tuning which desired products are made. Sarazen specializes in designing catalysts known as zeolites, used in everything from filtering water to processing nuclear waste. They also make an excellent match for converting hydrocarbons but are limited by their stability. Sarazen will seek to improve the upcycling of polyolefins, a class of materials that are ubiquitous in landfills and marine microplastics, with the goal of creating a closed-carbon alternative to fossil-fuels for hard-to-decarbonize sectors such as aviation fuels. The grant also will fund educational and outreach objectives, including expanding interactive modules in the course “Green and Catalytic Chemistry” and broader efforts to strengthen Princeton’s catalysis community.

Sarazen previously won funding from NSF to lower the greenhouse gas emissions associated with liquid fuel production from methane as well as to investigate catalysts based on earth-abundant metals for selective oxidation reactions. Last year, she was named to the 35 Under 35 list from the American Institute for Chemical Engineers and was appointed to the Journal of Catalysis Early Career Editorial Board. She has previously won a best early career paper award from the Royal Society of Chemistry, a Howard B. Wentz, Jr. Award from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and two separate Grand Challenge Awards from the High Meadows Environmental Institute, among many other honors. She earned her Ph.D. in chemical engineering from University of California-Berkeley and joined the Princeton faculty in 2019.