Cottrell Scholar Awards - 2017
Bridging Heterogeneous and Molecular Electrocatalysis: Inner-Sphere Electron Transfer at Graphite-Conjugated Molecular Active Sites
As the world turns increasingly to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, their inherent intermittency requires efficient methods for energy storage and release during times of high demand and low supply.
Yogesh Surendranath, chemistry, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has received a Cottrell Scholar Award from Research Corporation for Science Advancement to perform fundamental research aimed at improving the storage and release of electrical energy through energy-dense chemical fuels.
Specifically, Surendranath and his colleagues will be looking at a new class of molecular materials they have created, graphite-conjugated catalysts (GCCs). A catalyst is a material that aids in a chemical reaction but is not consumed by that reaction; it performs its magic through the action of electrons in the atoms composing the catalyst, a process called a charge transfer reaction. Unlike a solid metal catalyst, GCCs can be modified with additional molecules, such as various metals with active electrons.
"The added molecules choreograph the delivery of electrons from the graphite superstructures of GCCs to energy poor substrates in the solution, enabling exquisite control over the energy landscape of a reaction," Surendranath said.
He and his colleagues have already shown that GCCs are active catalysts for the reduction of molecular oxygen, a key reaction in fuel cells, and they have tuned GCCs for the reduction of carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide, a key step in creating liquid fuels.
“Development of next-generation devices for renewable energy storage and release requires strategies for understanding and manipulating these elementary charge transfer reactions at the level of atoms and molecules,” Surendranath said.
By systematically exploring the mechanisms of electron transfer in GCCs, he hopes to develop a molecular-level description of the catalytic process.
There is also an education component to the Cottrell Scholar Award. Surendranath will use some of the funding to transform chemistry education at MIT by implementing a debate-based framework for interactive learning, professional communication, and critical discourse.
“The plan draws from my own personal experience as a competitive high school policy debater and integrates complementary approaches including the introduction of debate-based instruction in the classroom, annual workshops targeted at constructing compelling scientific arguments, and the establishment of student-driven debates of contemporary research articles,” he said.
Surendranath’s hope is that these educational initiatives will provide students with the rhetorical skills necessary to be effective thought leaders and communicators in chemistry.