Junior Faculty Make Strong Showing in State-Run Grant Program
May 13, 2012
Toby Weber

The state of Texas received more than 270 proposals for its Norman Hackerman Advanced Research Program. In the end, only 12 grants were awarded, two of which went to researchers with the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering.

Assistant professors of chemical and biomolecular engineering Jeff Rimer and Gila Stein each received two-year, $80,000 grants from the program, which is administered by the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board and designed to support basic research performed by early-career investigators.

Rimer’s grant involves a class of catalysts called zeolites, which are used by the petroleum and chemicals industries to produce many different products.

Zeolites are nanoporous materials that are able to perform this function thanks to the small channels that span their entire structure. Molecules enter the channels, react within the zeolite pores and then exit, transformed into something new.

As a rule of thumb, the thinner these channels, the better, said Rimer. In longer channels, residue from the reactions is more likely to build up in the pores, limiting zeolite efficiency. In addition, thinner channels increase the product yield.

“If a molecule enters the zeolite and reacts, you want the products to exit quickly to improve efficiency,” said Rimer. “If you have a zeolite with really long channels, the molecular flux is very low. An ideal catalyst is a thin crystal with high porous surface area, allowing molecules to enter, react, and then diffuse rapidly.”

So Rimer has developed – and recently won a full patent for – a method to produce ultra-thin zeolites using certain molecules that attach to specific zeolite surfaces and block growth sites, thereby tailoring the size and shape of zeolite crystals. Rimer said he will use this grant to further develop this technology in order to create even more efficient zeolite catalysts.

Stein’s work involves using polymers in place of inorganic semiconductors such as silicon to build electronic devices.

Polymers have shown great potential in this arena. To operate most efficiently, though, many devices need polymer nanostructures. Polymer-based solar cells, for instance, required a nanostructured active layer to separate electron/hole pairs.

Stein will use this grant to study the use of radiation beams to create these nanostructures. The use of beam-directed assembly is established for inorganic semiconductors, she noted.

“We’re working to understand how you can use radiation to directly pattern different types of functional materials for a variety of applications. We’ll take a lot of technology out there for studying inorganic materials and leverage it for organic semiconductors,” she said.

These grants add to an already stellar year for the Cullen College’s junior faculty. The two ARP awards are more than every other institution in the state except for the University of Texas at Austin, where researchers from every college combined to win four awards. In addition, Cullen College faculty members in 2012 have combined to win five National Science Foundation CAREER Awards, one of the most prestigious grants given to early-career investigators.

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