Clean Energy Institute Launches

CleanEnergyInstKickoff_sqA new University of Washington institute to develop efficient, cost-effective solar power and better energy storage systems launched December 12 with an event attended by UW President Michael K. Young, Gov. Jay Inslee and researchers, industry experts and policy leaders in renewable energy.

The Clean Energy Institute formed when Washington’s governor and state legislators last summer allocated $6 million to create a research center at the university that will advance solar energy and electrical energy storage capacities. The institute will better connect and boost existing energy research at the UW as well as attract new partnerships and talent, including new faculty members.

The opening of the Clean Energy Institute was covered by KIRO 7 News, the Seattle Times, and UW News. Chemistry Professor David Ginger, Raymon E. and Rosellen M. Lawton Distinguished Scholar in Chemistry, is the Associate Director of the Clean Energy Institute.  Daniel Gamelin, Harry and Catherine Jaynne Boand Endowed Professor of Chemistry, serves on the Faculty Advisory Board.

New research published in Nature explores organic solar cells

A vial holds a solution that contains the UW-developed polymer “ink” that can be printed to make solar cells.

A vial holds a solution that contains the UW-developed polymer “ink” that can be printed to make solar cells.

David Ginger, Professor and Raymon E. and Rosellen M. Lawton Distinguished Scholar in Chemistry, and Alex Jen, Boeing/Johnson Chair Professor of Materials Science & Engineering, along with other researchers, have recently reported on the role of electron spin in creating efficient organic solar cells. Their findings were recently published in the journal Nature.

Organic solar cells that convert light to electricity using carbon-based molecules have shown promise as a versatile energy source but have not been able to match the efficiency of their silicon-based counterparts. These researchers have discovered a synthetic, high-performance polymer that behaves differently from other tested materials and could make inexpensive, highly efficient organic solar panels a reality. The polymer, created at the University of Washington and tested at the University of Cambridge in England, appears to improve efficiency by wringing electrical current from pathways that, in other materials, cause a loss of electrical charge.

More information can be found at Nature and in the UW News press release.

To learn more about Professor Ginger and Professor Jen, please visit their research group websites.

Ginger Research Group: http://depts.washington.edu/gingerlb/

Jen Research Group: http://depts.washington.edu/jengroup/

Exploring the origins of life

Keller cover image_squareSarah Keller, working with Roy Black, affiliate professor of bioengineering, has helped to unravel some of the mystery surrounding the origin of cells in Earth’s ancient oceans. The work, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, describes the unexpected interaction of the chemical components of RNA and fatty acids and their role in stabilizing the precursors to cellular membranes.

The chemical components crucial to the start of life on Earth may have primed and protected each other in never-before-realized ways. That could mean a simpler scenario for how that first spark of life on the planet came about. Scientists have long thought that life started when the right combination of bases and sugars produced self-replicating ribonucleic acid, or RNA, inside a rudimentary ‘cell’ composed of fatty acids. Under the right conditions, fatty acids naturally form into bag-like structures similar to today’s cell membranes. In testing one of the fatty acids representative of those found before life began – decanoic acid – Keller and Black discovered that the four bases in RNA bound more readily to the decanoic acid than did the other seven bases tested. By concentrating more of the bases and sugar that are the building blocks of RNA, the system would have been primed for the next steps, reactions that led to RNA inside a bag.

Descriptions of the published research can be found on the UW News website and on Babbage, the science and technology blog of The Economist.

To learn more about Professor Keller, visit her faculty page and research group website.

The absolute configurations of the bitter acids of hops determined

Werner Kaminsky, Research Associate Professor and Department Crystallographer, working with researchers at KinDex Therapeutics and the University of Washington, has recently determined the absolute configurations of the acids from hops that give beer its characteristic bitter flavor. The results, reported recently in the journal Angewandte Chemie, were determined by X-ray crystallography  of these humulones and isohumulones, as well as several of their derivatives.

Humulones are bacteriostatic bitter substances from hops (Humulus lupulus) and act as natural preservatives. When beer wort is heated together with hops, rearrangement products are formed. These bitter compounds, known as iso-alpha acids or isohumulones, give beer its characteristic flavor. In addition, extracts of hops, such as the more stable tetrahydro-iso-alpha acids used by some brewers instead of hops, have been developed.

When humulones rearrange, a ring containing six carbon atoms converts into a five-membered ring. At the end of this process, two side groups may be arranged in two different ways: They can be on the same side or on opposite sides of the plane of the ring (cis or trans). The determination of the configuration of these compounds was complex because the isomerization process of humulones results in a large number of very similar compounds that had to be separated, purified, and the acids converted into suitable salts.

The absolute configurations of the hops bitter acids found by Kaminsky and his co-workers contradict some of the results previously reported in the literature, which raises the question of how suitable the indirect methods (Horeau method, Cotton effect) used for these studies really are for such investigations. Thanks to their new insights, the researchers have now also been able to determine the mechanism of the rearrangement in detail.

Why is the configuration so interesting? Although excessive beer consumption is not recommended, there are some indications that the hops bitter acids may have positive effects on diabetes, some forms of cancer, and inflammation, as well as weight loss. However, the effects seem to vary substantially depending on the absolute configuration. In addition, the various degrees of bitterness in beer seem to depend on the different forms of the tetrahydro-iso-alpha acids. Now that their stereochemistry is definitively known, these conjectures can be seriously tested, since the binding of iso-alpha acids to proteins requires that their “handedness” be compatible—like nuts and bolts.

To learn more, visit Dr. Kaminsky’s faculty page or read more at Angewandte Chemie.

CENTC receives NSF reauthorization for $20 million

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $20 million grant over five years in reauthorizing the Center for Enabling New Technologies Through Catalysis based at the University of Washington, Department of Chemistry. The center, led by Karen Goldberg, Nicole A. Boand Endowed Professor of Chemistry, brings together 18 investigators and their research groups in chemistry and chemical engineering at 14 different institutions across North America. Their focus is to develop fundamental science needed to sustainably produce chemicals and fuels. Two other UW chemistry professors, James Mayer and Michael Heinekey, are also involved.

The center was established with a three-year NSF grant in 2004 with the aim of finding easier, more powerful and more environmentally friendly ways of manipulating the strong chemical bonds found in most materials. In 2007 the center received a $15 million, five-year award from NSF. Under the latest grant renewal, scientists will create and investigate new reactions and catalyst systems transforming various chemical bonds involving carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. The data will help devise new methods for the chemical industry that could provide consumers with a variety of less-expensive products created in ways that use less energy and produce fewer undesirable byproducts. The research focuses on basic science that can provide the technological basis for sustainable production of chemicals, pharmaceuticals and fuels. The work has significant potential to increase U.S. competitiveness and bring increased energy independence, Goldberg said.

The center offers collaborative training for students as well as postdoctoral researchers. It has a number of industrial affiliates that provide guidance and facilitate commercial development of the center’s research. The Center for Enabling New Technologies Through Catalysis is led by the UW and is funded as part of the NSF Centers for Chemical Innovation program.

Article by of Vince Stricherz, UW News and Information

Science paper explores proton-coupled electron transfer in metal oxide nanoparticles

A recent publication in Science by Professor James Mayer and coworkers explores the transfer of electrons and protons in titanium and zinc oxide nanoparticles. The chemical reactions that occur on the surfaces of these metal oxides are important for applications such as solar cells. This new research indicates that the usual description of these reactions as electron transfers is incomplete – that the reactions can be more accurately described as proton-coupled electron transfers.

“As we think about building a better energy future, we have to develop more efficient ways to convert chemical energy into electrical energy and vice versa,” said Prof. Mayer, the Alvin L. and Verla R. Kwiram Endowed Professor of Chemistry.

Chemical reactions that change the oxidation state of molecules on the surface of metal oxides historically have been seen as a transfer solely of electrons. The new research shows that, at least in some reactions, the transfer process includes coupled electrons and protons.

“Research and manufacturing have grown up around models in which electrons moved but not atoms,” Mayer said. The new paper proposes a different model for certain kinds of processes, a perspective that could lead to new avenues of investigation, he said. “In principle this is a path toward more efficient energy utilization.” Coupling the transfer of electrons with the transfer of protons could help reduce the energy barriers to chemical reactions important in many technologies. For example, using solar energy to make fuels such as hydrogen requires that electrons and protons be coupled.

Co-authors of the Science paper are Joel Schrauben, a UW postdoctoral researcher; Rebecca Hayoun, who since has received a doctorate from the UW and is working in the private sector; UW graduate students Carolyn Valdez and Miles Braten; and Lila Fridley, an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who participated as a summer researcher at UW.

The work was funded by the UW, the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund, the National Science Foundation through the UW-based Center for Enabling New Technologies through Catalysis, and the U.S. Department of Energy.

To learn more about this research, read the UW News press release, the Science article (subscription required), or visit Prof. Mayer’s website and research page.

UW documentary features four Chemistry faculty

Professors Michael Gelb, David Ginger, Alvin Kwiram, and Pradip Rathod of the Department of Chemistry are among the notable University of Washington scientists highlighted in a new documentary released this month. “Timeless Discoveries,” a documentary made possible by the generosity of the Leonard P. & Helen M. Kammeyer Endowed Fund, highlights major breakthroughs, groundbreaking research, and practical applications revealed by the scientific community at the College of Arts & Sciences. The film, which will air on UWTV, follows professors and students as they discuss their challenges and discoveries ranging from the Hepatitis B vaccine to advances in solar energy.  The film was also featured in the Local News section of the Seattle Times.

To learn more about Professor Gelb and his research, please visit his faculty page and research group website.

To learn more about Professor Ginger and his research, please visit his faculty web page and his research group site.

To learn more about Emeritus Professor Kwiram and his research, please visit his faculty page.

To learn more about Professor Rathod and his research, visit his faculty web page.

Wow! That’s a Big Magnet

It’s finally here. At long last, the 800 MHz NMR magnet rolled up behind Bagley Hall last week on a very big truck in a very big box (see pictures below). The move of a 3-ton object from Europe to the basement of Bagley was only achieved after considerable planning and with the help of many experts. Among other things, the planning included assuring ourselves that the magnet in transit from the loading dock to its new home would not choose to travel suddenly from the ground floor to the sub-basement (meaning, cause the collapse of the suspended concrete slab that serves as the floor). Disaster did not ensue: the magnet is now in its new home, resting on a concrete slab directly in contact with mother Earth. Stay tuned as the super-conducting coils are cooled within a few degrees of absolute zero and are brought to the electrical current needed to achieve an 18.8 Tesla magnetic field. Congratulations and thanks to Professors Drobny, Klevit, and Varani for winning the grant that purchased this new instrument that will benefit so many research projects. And mega-kudos to Chemistry’s Director of Technical Services, James Gladden, who has so capably led the Department’s planning efforts for this installation.

UW Chemistry Faculty Lead UW to Top Citation Impact in Materials Science

According to a recent report, the University of Washington led the world in impact of publications in materials science research during the period 2001-2011. This analysis, by Thomson-Reuters, focused on 800 papers published at the UW in the field of materials science, which were collectively cited about 24,000 times, achieving a remarkable 30.41 citations per publication. The UW’s performance was closely followed by a number of outstanding private and public institutions. Chemistry Chair Paul Hopkins points out that even in a large university such as the UW, the work of a small number of faculty members can strongly influence the outcome of such analyses. He points out that UW Chemistry Professor Daniel Gamelin, UW Chemistry and Materials Science Professor Alex Jen, UW Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Professor Samson Jenekhe, and former UW Chemistry Professor Younan Xia together published a total of nearly 750 papers  in that time period that were cited over 43,000 times, or 58 citations per paper. Though all of these papers were clearly not included in the Thomson-Reuters analysis, Hopkins believes that that the work of chemists Gamelin, Jen, Jenekhe, and Xia was critical to lifting the UW to the number one spot. Hopkins hopes that prospective graduate students and postdoctoral associates in this field will take notice of the UW’s outstanding performance and strongly consider joining this exciting program at the UW.

Jen et al. describe nanoscale molecular control in Science

Professor Alex Jen, Boeing-Johnson Chair professor of materials science and engineering and professor of chemistry, and his co-workers have demonstrated the ability to foster an extremely unlikely chemical reaction between two molecules by tethering them into the correct orientation on a gold surface. The study is reported in the March 11, 2011 issue of Science. The research was also highlighted in the March 14, 2011 issue of Chemical & Engineering News:

“In the work, chemists led by Paul S. Weiss and Kendall N. Houk of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Alex K-Y. Jen of the University of Washington, Seattle, tied two anthracene analogs next to each other on a gold surface. This forced the molecules to react in a manner that, although theoretically possible in solution, rarely occurs there because of unfavorable geometry.

“In principle, the mallet-shaped molecule 9-phenylethynylanthracene (PEA) should undergo a 4 + 4 photocycloaddition with another molecule of PEA. But because of geometric constraints, that reaction rarely happens. Instead, one PEA’s anthracene moiety tends to do Diels-Alder chemistry with the ethynyl unit on another PEA’s phenylethynyl handle.

“To force the disfavored reaction, the researchers attach a thiol group to the end of PEA’s handle and tether two such molecules next to one another on a gold surface within the defect sites of a self-assembled alkanethiolate monolayer. The anthracene moieties are then poised in the correct orientation to do the photocycloaddition when photoexcited.”

To learn more about Prof. Jen’s research, visit his group research page.

For more information about the Science article, read the UW press release.