CAREER: SUNCROPS Solar-Fuels Using Nanoscale Catalysts Reacting on Polymer-modified Surfaces

Project: Research project


This career development plan integrates research, education, and societal impact through the study of surface-immobilized catalysts using polymeric interfaces. Catalysts can accelerate otherwise energetically demanding chemical transformations, but the ability to effectively interface them with conductive and semi-conductive surfaces for driving industrially relevant redox reactions remains a major challenge. Addressing this obstacle will provide an improved fundamental understanding of catalysis in complex environments and enable technological advancements that depend on the precise control and selectivity of molecular components. The driving hypothesis of this proposal is that development and testing of modular catalyst-polymer-surface assemblies will lead to applications for generating valuable chemical products, including hydrogen and carbon monoxide, while serving as a platform for probing the mechanistic details of integrated catalyst architectures. Implementing cobaloximes, porphyrins and phthalocyanines as molecular catalysts immobilized on surface-grafted polymers, structure and function relationships of the constructs will be established using a range of surface sensitive spectroscopic techniques coupled with (photo)electrochemical methods. The goals of this project and associated educational plan are to demonstrate that surface-grafted polymer chains can provide: (a) protective coatings on (semi)conducting surfaces, (b) appropriate functional groups to direct, template, and assemble molecular catalysts, and (c) stabilizing environments for catalysts encapsulated within polymers that can be tailored to control and fine tune the activity of the overall assembly. The research also serves as a platform for an educational plan that will: (a) develop an innovative graduate course designed to help scientists and engineers grasp fundamental concepts in chemical processes of solar energy conversion, (b) train high school students, especially underrepresented minorities, in foundational laboratory skills that will further their advancement in the work force and inspire their pursuit of scientific careers, and (c) provide mentorship and research opportunities for underrepresented populations, including students from local Native American tribes.

Surface-grafted polymers will be used to integrate organic nanoarchitectures with inorganic foundations, facilitating the manipulation of materials using chemical recognition at the molecular level. By providing a stabilizing polymeric interface to maintain and enhance activity, the proposed research will fill an important knowledge gap in efforts to attach molecular redox catalysts to solid supports without loss of catalytic functionality. The hybrid assemblies will also provide opportunities to develop methods for characterization and an improved understanding of catalysis at hard-to-soft matter interfaces. In addition, the modularity of the construct allows catalysts, polymers and surfaces to be optimized as new materials and discoveries become available.

Managing interfacial chemistry using polymer coatings offers new opportunities to control matter and energy at the nano and meso scales. This approach features the ability to chemically tailor these hybrid constructs to address specific chemical transformations and societal needs. Through this project, graduate and undergraduate students will be trained in practical aspects of chemical catalysis and energy science. In addition, high school internships will be provided for developing scientists through the Phoenix Preparatory Academy, which is composed almost entirely of underserved groups. Five underserved high school students from Phoenix Preparatory Academy will be provided an enriching, hands-on experience of how science is performed and will provided practical skills and inspiration to pursue further education and a career in energy science. Working with these students, the PI and his personnel will enable their transition into college through academic mentorship and provide a model that could be adapted for use at other institutions. As a Native American (Powhatan Nation, Pamunkey Tribe), the PI is aware of the additional hardships that minority students can face and intentionally recruits and assists underrepresented minority students for postdoc, graduate, and undergraduate research experiences while promoting their retention and advancement, and is committed to broadening participation in science by building and maintaining a diverse laboratory team.
Effective start/end date1/1/1712/31/21


  • National Science Foundation (NSF): $661,136.00


Redox reactions
Protective coatings
Carbon Monoxide
Surface chemistry
Energy conversion
Catalyst supports
Solar energy
Functional groups