Brandi Cossairt named 2015 Packard Fellow

Brandi CossairtThe David and Lucile Packard Foundation has named the University of Washington’s Brandi Cossairt as one of 18 Packard Fellows for 2015. The Packard Foundation chooses scientists in the early stages of their careers and supports the more innovative avenues of investigation that traditional funding may not give them the freedom to explore.

“It is really an honor — humbling and amazing,” said Cossairt, an assistant professor in the UW Department of Chemistry. The fellowship includes a five-year research grant of $875,000.

Cossairt and the members of her lab — at last count nine graduate students, one postdoctoral fellow and several undergraduates — pursue research to synthesize and manufacture new molecules for applications in green technology such as solar energy and fuel production.

“I like to group chemists into two categories — makers and measurers,” said Cossairt. “We’re definitely makers.”

Cossairt works on crystal formation at the “nanoscale,” a window of size between 1 and 100 nanometers. For reference, 1 nanometer is 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. This range of exploration is intermediate between the scale of individual molecules or atoms and larger — but still microscopic — realm of bacteria or crystalline aggregates. It is also a scale with unique properties, especially for the nanocrystals Cossairt studies.

“The properties of materials at this scale just tend to be really different than if they were smaller or larger,” said Cossairt. “In the nanoscale, when you change the size of these nanocrystals, their electronic structure changes. You can alter what color of light they absorb and what color they emit, for example.”

Light emitted from nanocrystals

Light emitted from nanocrystals synthesized in the Cossairt lab for display applications.  Courtesy of the Cossairt group.

Many of Cossairt’s research projects explore the light-interacting properties of nanocrystals. One goal is to synthesize new light-emitters for energy-efficient lighting and electronic displays. Other projects aim to produce new, efficient light-absorbing compounds for solar cells.

Cossairt’s research also explores new methods for fuel production. Just as she hopes semiconductor nanocrystals could harvest light for solar energy, she is looking at how nanocrystals could harvest light directly for fuel formation, such as splitting water molecules to produce hydrogen. In a separate project, Cossairt and her team are exploring how nanocrystals could absorb a pollutant, such as carbon dioxide gas from industrial output, and convert it into octane, a useful hydrocarbon fuel.

In addition to these green applications for nanocrystals, Cossairt and her laboratory study new ways to manufacture nanocrystals quickly and efficiently.

“The tools to work at this scale are developing, and if you don’t make your crystals the same size they won’t all have the same properties,” said Cossairt. “What we really try to do is to make these nanomaterials cheaply and uniformly.”

Indium phosphide nanocrystal

A single crystal X-ray diffraction structure — the first of its kind — of an indium phosphide nanocrystal synthesized in the Cossairt lab. Courtesy of the Cossairt group.

Part of Cossairt’s motivation in these projects is a sense of social responsibility for the challenges of the 21st century.

“As a scientist, I ultimately want to do things that help people,” she said. “We need green energy, and lots of it, and my background in materials science and chemistry makes this application the right space for my training.”

Cossairt earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology and a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She began to study nanocrystal properties as a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University before joining the UW faculty in 2012. Cossairt is the third Packard Fellow to come from the UW Department of Chemistry and the ninth overall for the university, seven of whom are still at the UW.

Every year, about 50 universities are invited to nominate two faculty members who are in the first three years of their careers for consideration as a fellow. A 12-member scientific panel recommends fellows each year for final selection by the Packard Foundation Board of Trustees, in fields from biology to engineering.

“The previous Packard Fellows have been astounding, so I feel like I’m in great company,” said Cossairt.

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For more information, contact Cossairt at 206-543-4643 or cossairt@uw.edu.

See the original post of this story by James Urton, News and Information, at UW Today here.