MAY 18, 2023 — The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded $475,000 to fund a three-year research project that utilizes chemical reactions to develop new methods for converting light into stored energy. The project is under the direction of Kirk Schanze, Robert A. Welch Distinguished University Chair in Chemistry and professor in the UTSA College of Sciences’ Department of Chemistry.
With the support of the NSF Chemical Structure, Dynamics & Mechanisms-B (CSDM-B) Program, Schanze and Aimée Tomlinson, professor of chemistry at the University of North Georgia (UNG), are working together to study charged organic radicals, molecules that contain special properties that are conducive for using solar energy in organic reactions.
Another project goal is to engage UTSA and UNG students from underrepresented backgrounds in all aspects of the research.
The award starts on June 1 and is estimated to continue for the next three years with approximately $125,000 awarded annually to fund necessary support personnel that includes a part-time postdoctoral fellow, a full-time Ph.D. student assistant and a summer undergraduate research assistant.
“We are developing new approaches for converting light energy into stored chemical energy in a manner of solar energy conversion,” said Schanze. “The project studies the fundamental properties of a reactive type of organic compound called an ion radical. These intermediates contain high amounts of energy and can be used in a variety of important chemical and physical transformations when they absorb solar light.”
Ion radicals are important to chemists because they are very reactive and can use light to facilitate organic reactions inside of a controlled environment to create new molecules, which can be used to store energy or as useful materials for health, environment and technology applications. By creating these new molecules, Schanze and his team aim to uncover novel methods that will help facilitate energy and chemical reactions and convert light into energy through a term chemists call “artificial photosynthesis.”
The project draws on the principals of organic, physical and computational chemistry. It also provides a unique opportunity for UTSA students to gain hands-on training that is well-rounded within the discipline and includes applying high-level chemistry concepts within a lab setting, writing reports and research papers, and presenting results at scientific conferences.
Tanjila Islam, a doctoral student in the UTSA Department of Chemistry, is the lead graduate student on the project and is analyzing the excited (energized) states of ion radicals by using experimental photophysical methods and theoretical calculations. She hopes to determine their effectiveness in converting and storing solar energy.
“Our findings will lead to the development of photosensitizers that absorb broadly in the visible and near-infrared regions and have practical applications in organic transformations and solar energy conversion through artificial photosynthesis,” said Islam. “This project is significant as it will elucidate a new generation of materials that can be employed in electron transfer reactions which provides an efficient and environmentally friendly method for building aromatic compounds.”
Other members on Schanze’s research team include Naresh Duvva and Habtom Gobez, postdoctoral fellows, and Xiaodan Wang, a doctoral student in the UTSA Department of Chemistry.
The NSF-funded research project is entitled, "CAS: Collaborative Research: Photophysics and Electron Transfer Reactivity of Ion Radical Excited States" and is publicly listed online under the NSF Award Abstracts database.
The Schanze Lab researches the interaction of light with small molecules, polymers, and materials. The lab investigates the photochemical and photophysical processes that are stimulated when molecular systems absorb light. Their research uses the light emission process of molecules and materials to develop novel light emitting devices (polymer LEDs), and novel fluorescent sensors. Sensor systems developed by the lab are currently being used by aerodynamics engineers in wind-tunnel and mechanics tests and by chemists and biochemists for sensing analytes, substances and biological components of interest.
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