Cottrell Scholar Awards - 2016
Quantum Dynamic Investigations of Photo-induced Electron Transfer Catalyzed by Transition Metal Complexes
It’s no secret that water, H2O, can be split into its component parts – hydrogen and oxygen. But doing so cheaply, efficiently and in adequate quantities to produce clean, renewable hydrogen-based fuel on an industrial scale has stymied many groups of researchers.
Nandini Ananth, assistant professor of chemistry at Cornell University, is performing basic research on how to improve the catalysts that split water molecules to yield hydrogen.
Ideally, this process would be powered by sunlight, which costs nothing, and would involve only inexpensive, earth-abundant chemicals. Along those lines, Ananth is investigating the potential effectiveness of metal-based catalysts to help sunlight split water in much the same way that plants do when performing photosynthesis.
Specifically, Ananth and her associates are drawing their inspiration from Photosystem II, a protein complex in plants that uses enzymes (biological catalysts) to capture photons (particles of light) to energize electrons. Produce enough energized electrons and you have an electric current with which to split water.
While experiments by others have already demonstrated that some metallic catalysts can split water, Ananth’s research will involve designing and employing theoretical methods to understand how these processes work at the atomic and sub-atomic levels and on sub-femtosecond timescales. A femtosecond is one-millionth of one-billionth of a second.
For the education component of the Cottrell Scholar Award, Ananth will design math modules for undergraduate science classrooms that “encourage, involve, and build student confidence” with a specific initial focus on chemistry majors.
She will design problem-driven introductory math modules to accompany regular chemistry course material, introduce interactive classroom exercises to build mathematical models of physical phenomena, design in-class demonstrations using graphic software to visualize mathematical equations and their solutions, and compile extensive reference sets of practice problems designed to enhance familiarity and ease with basic calculus, multi-variable calculus, linear algebra, and differential equations as they apply to problems in physical sciences.
“The different strategies are chosen to address the broad range of learners in a classroom – visual, hands-on, and auditory,” she said.