Written by Sophia Chen
At each conference, MRS invites award recipients to deliver a short talk about their research. This year’s speakers presented topics ranging from quantum theoretical simulation to more environmentally sustainable cement. The panel was moderated by MRS Awards Committee chair Suveen Mathaudhu of the University of California, Riverside.
Emily Carter of the University of California, Los Angeles, presented about theoretical research for predicting materials properties, particularly for carbon mitigation purposes. She uses theoretical methods to identify catalysts for recycling carbon dioxide into chemical feedstocks or to devise carbon sequestration methods.
These applications involve electron transfer and electronic excited states, both of which are not well described by density functional theory, the primary theoretical framework for modeling quantum processes, says Carter. Instead, she studies embedded correlated wavefunction (ECW) theory. In one study, she found that ECW described carbon dioxide reduction on a copper electrode more accurately than density functional theory.
Yury Gogotsi of Drexel University presented research on a class of two-dimensional materials known as MXenes (pronounced “max-eens”) for energy storage. The basic unit of these materials is a transition metal bonded to a carbon or nitrogen. To tune the material’s properties, you can swap out the atoms exposed at the material’s surface.
Gogotsi says MXenes could be suitable for many different applications. It has already outperformed all other known materials for electromagnetic interference shielding, he said. In addition, MXenes can be used for antennas and communications. It can also be knitted into fabrics for wearable electronics.
Susan Bernal Lopez of the University of Leeds presented her research on more environmentally sustainable concrete. Concrete is the most widely used material in the world after water, and making it produces a significant amount of carbon dioxide. Bernal is studying how to reduce CO2 during production.
In one case, she is looking into a class of materials known as alkali-activated cement to replace Portland cement, the glue that keeps concrete together. Alkali-activated cement can be made by combining an aluminosilicate source, such as volcanic ash or byproducts from coal combustion, with an alkali source. Alkali-activated cement would produce half or less of the hundreds of kilograms of carbon dioxide that Portland cement produces.
Bernal’s group is working to characterize alkali-activated cement. She has studied how impurities affected the performance of the cement. She has also studied the evolution of pores within paste after mixing for identifying strategies to make concrete more durable.
Stafford Sheehan, chief technology officer of Air Company, presented his company’s efforts to convert carbon dioxide into alcohol-containing products. These products range from vodka and hand sanitizer to aviation fuel and fragrances. The company operates three facilities: a catalyst lab for optimizing catalysts in New Jersey, a pilot facility for testing reactions, and a production facility that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Air Company is working to scale up their production, said Sheehan. They have operated a system that can handle one tonne of carbon dioxide per day. Now, they are striving to scale up to 500 tons per day by 2024 and eventually 10,000 tons per day by 2027.
Dasha Nelidova, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute Molecular Clinical Ophthalmology Basel, presented a sensor that attaches to a retina that could help restore visual function in vision-impaired humans.
The sensor makes cells sensitive to near-infrared light. The system achieves this by combining nanotechnology with optogenetics, a technique to control cell activity with light. Gold nanorods serve as antennas, converting near-infrared light into local heat. This heat then opens up an ion channel known as a TRP channel attached to the nanorods to drive photocurrents through the retina. When she tested the sensor in blind mice, the mice were able to perform simple behavioral tasks. She aims for her system to help those with age-related macular degeneration or retinitis pigmentosa, two leading causes of blindness worldwide.
Zhijie Chen, a postdoctoral researcher at Northwestern University, presented his work on a class of porous materials known as metal-organic frameworks (MOFs). These network-like structures can be made from a variety of tunable materials and are known for their large surface area.
Chen has developed several applications using MOFs. In one, he designed a highly porous MOF called NU-1500 for hydrogen storage. In another, he integrated a MOF onto fabric that breaks down deadly chemical weapons known as nerve agents. To do this, the MOF captures water from the air, and the water breaks down the nerve agents with the help of a zirconium catalyst in the MOF. The fabric is intended for military uniforms.
Carter received the Materials Theory Award for “advances in quantum mechanics theory with broad applications to materials and chemical sciences.” Endowed by Dr. Gwo-Ching Wang and Dr. Toh-Ming Lu.
Gogotsi received the MRS Medal for “contributions to advancing the understanding of processing, structure, and properties of two-dimensional carbides and nitrides (MXenes) for energy storage applications.” Endowed by Dr. Gwo-Ching Wang and Dr. Toh-Ming Lu.
Lopez (Kavli Foundation Early Career Lectureship in Materials Science) for significant novel contributions to materials science. The Kavli Foundation is dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of humanity, promoting public understanding of scientific research and supporting scientists and their work.
Sheehan (MRS Nelson “Buck” Robinson Science and Technology Award for Renewable Energy) for the development of novel sustainable solutions for the realization of renewable sources of energy. Endowed by Sophie Robinson in memory of her father, Nelson "Buck" Robinson.
Nelidova (MRS Postdoctoral Award) for “creating tunable nanogenetic near-infrared light sensors to restore vision.” Supported by the Jiang Family Foundation and MTI Corporation.
Chen (MRS Postdoctoral Award) for “his outstanding contributions to the fields of porous materials, nanochemistry, and supramolecular assembly.” Supported by the Jiang Family Foundation and MTI Corporation.