Campus News

UGA chemistry professors awarded $1.5 million to conduct energy-related research

Athens, Ga. – If you want to increase your car’s gas mileage or build a more powerful handheld electronic device, don’t bend steel or slice silicon chips. Manipulate nanomaterials and molecules instead.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, two University of Georgia researchers will pursue more efficient methods of energy transmission and storage that involve maneuvering microscopic particles. Tina Salguero and Gary Douberly, assistant professors of chemistry in the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, will each receive $750,000 for five years from the DOE’s Office of Science Early Career Research Program for energy-related projects.

“This is tremendous news that continues the very strong performance of the chemistry faculty in recent years,” said UGA President Michael F. Adams. “At a time when this country faces serious questions about the future of its energy supply, research focused on energy efficiency is a national priority. I am proud that Drs. Salguero and Douberly are being supported by the Department of Energy in their groundbreaking research.”

Salguero will focus on increasing the energy capacity for compact electrical devices while Douberly looks to new technologies to improve fuel efficiency.

Salguero will tackle obstacles to creating smaller, more powerful electronic devices with materials at the ultimate thinness limit. She thinks the solution may be to replace commonly used electronic components with ceramic nanosheets-sheets just one atom thick-made of metal oxide materials. In some cases, she believes, the shape and surface area of the nanosheets can increase the amount of charge that can be stored, which is known as the energy density.

“Our efforts will develop the first synthetic methods for creating these types of nanosheets, and the characterization studies will show whether they retain their important dielectric properties,” she said.

Salguero plans to develop methodologies for preparing ceramics in nanosheet form and to gauge their properties. She will also test two ways to process the nanosheets-first via inkjet printing of liquid crystalline nanosheets and second by mechanically assembling alternating layers of conducting and non-conducting materials to build up dense, hybrid nanosheet structures capable of greater energy storage.

“Devices using this technology would have an energy density far exceeding anything possible today,” Salguero said. “Ceramic nanosheets could enable technological wonders like handheld high-power lasers and mobile electromagnetic launchers.”

Douberly will use his funding to capture short-lived molecules and free radicals-highly reactive molecules-that arise during engine ignition. He will use a method called helium nanodroplet isolation to hold molecule groups-or species-that form for brief moments during combustion. Douberly will capture the molecules inside drops of super-cooled liquid helium and subject them to infrared laser spectroscopy to determine their molecular structure and their unique combinations of electromagnetic radiation wavelengths, or spectroscopic signatures.

“Once the spectroscopic signatures of these species are known, then new experiments can be designed to characterize how they will react in different situations,” Douberly said.

By 2016, new fuel efficiency standards will require U.S. cars and light-duty trucks to travel an average of 35.5 miles per gallon, a rate slated to increase to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Douberly’s work may help car manufacturers achieve these standards by enabling researchers to optimize the ignition rates of fuels from sources such as oil sands, oil shale, coal and bio-feedstocks based on renewable resources such as corn and switchgrass.

“Ultimately, a better understanding of the combustion chemistry will lead to design and characterization of emerging combustion engine technologies that are cleaner and more efficient,” Douberly said.

Salguero and Douberly are among a very small group of researchers nationwide to receive funding through the DOE’s Early Career Research Program. Only 68 researchers-8 percent of all applicants who passed the pre-proposal phase-were accepted for funding this year. Of those, 14 worked in chemistry departments or divisions.

“This is the first time since the inception of the program in 2010 that these prestigious and highly competitive awards have been given to faculty researchers in the state of Georgia, so we’re enormously proud of Tina and Gary,” said David Lee, vice president for research at UGA. “The fact that two awards were given to UGA chemistry faculty in the same year is an unambiguous indication of the strength and upward trajectory of the department.”

While several institutions received more than one ECRP award, UGA’s chemistry department was the only department or division nationwide to win two awards in the field of chemistry and the only research unit in Georgia to receive the award.

“These are very competitive awards,” said Jonathan Amster, professor and head of the chemistry department in the Franklin College, “and the likelihood of two awards going to the same chemistry department is very small.”

In 2011, UGA chemistry department research projects garnered more than $6 million in funding. In recent years, chemistry faculty have been recognized for exemplary research or teaching by the Southeastern University Research Association, Princeton University and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.