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Using the sun's energy in novel ways

March 11, 2006

KALAMAZOO--One of the National Science Foundation's most prestigious award programs will fund five years of research by a young Western Michigan University chemist who is doing pioneering work in the field of nanotechnology.

Dr. Sherine Obare, assistant professor of chemistry, has been awarded $509,972 to conduct research on nanoscale materials and use this research to develop real-world experiments that will excite elementary and secondary students about science.

The award was made through the NSF's Faculty Early Career Development Program, known as the CAREER Program. CAREER grants recognize and support the early career work of teacher-scholars who are expected to become the academic leaders of the 21st century. They number among NSF's most important and competitive grants and are based on faculty proposals for creative career development plans that effectively integrate research and education.

"Dr. Obare's CAREER proposal received an 'Excellent' grade from three reviewers and the review panel. In other words, the reviewers and the panel unanimously gave her the highest grade possible," says Dr. Subra Muralidharan, professor of chemistry and director of WMU's Nanotechnology Research and Computation Center. "This is quite an achievement. It's very difficult to have different scientists come to a unanimous positive decision. To have this happen on Dr. Obare's first try is simply outstanding."

Obare's project, "Rationally Assembled Nanoparticles for Multi-Electron Transfer Processes," seeks to create nanoscale materials that trap and store the sun's energy and use that energy to carry out chemical reactions for specialized purposes, including breaking down pollutants in groundwater and generating hydrogen for use as an alternative fuel. She is focusing on nanomaterials--materials organized atom by atom or molecule by molecule--because they are have unique properties that can be manipulated and exploited for important applications such as those.

The project is inspired by how nature is able to use intricate pathways to carry out important reactions, Obare says, noting as an example that plants use sunlight to carry out photosynthesis. But what makes her research novel is that she is using nanomaterials to store the energy as electrons, and then initiate chemical reactions even when sunlight is not present.

Obare is working with a 10-person research team composed of one postdoctoral fellow, three graduate students and five undergraduate students from WMU, plus one undergraduate from Kalamazoo Valley Community College who is participating through a National Institutes of Health Bridges to the Baccalaureate program, aimed at helping the United States develop more scientists.

The research team, which has been working on the project for about six months, will spend the first year of the CAREER grant studying the theory behind how different configurations of metal and semiconductor nanomaterials that they already have created affect chemical reactions.

"We've made a lot of progress on making materials and assembling them, and now we're testing their ability to harvest and store energy in the form of multiple electrons," Obare says. "We need to understand the choreography of multiple electron transfer and how the nature of the metals and semiconductors, and their arrangement, will impact electron transfer dynamics."

In the second and third years of the project, team members will use what they learn about that choreography of electron transfer to pinpoint what governs the chemical reactions that they initiate. In the project's final two years, they will look for practical applications for their materials, conducting tests to see which ones hold the most promise for being developed into new technologies.

"At the end of the grant, we're expecting that the new science coming out of this project will open up a new field for us to continue working on; a field that will make an economic difference here in Michigan," Obare says. "Nanotechnology integrates several scientific disciplines--biology, physics, chemistry and engineering. So by training students through nanotechnology, we're building new scientists as well as new materials with new properties. It will be interesting to see what people trained in nanotechnology come up with."

Because nanotechnology requires an understanding of so many disciplines, Obare says introducing students to the field through laboratory work is essential, as is getting more students interested in science at an earlier age.

In addition to helping train the students on her research team, Obare is working with WMU's Mallinson Institute for Science Education to use the results of her research to explain basic nanoscale science concepts to the general public, especially elementary and middle school teachers.

"I'm interested in integrating my research with education. As a scientist, I want to encourage younger kids to go into science," she says. "One of the reasons students aren't interested in science is because they think it's too difficult or too boring. You have to get them excited at an early age."

Initially, Obare and her research team will develop intriguing experiments that address real-life problems and demonstrate these experiments in area classrooms. Then the researchers will work with teachers, educating them about nanotechnology and designing experiments that will be incorporated into their schools' science curricula.

"Nanoscale science is currently spearheading the next industrial revolution. In order to keep the United States competitive, we must educate elementary and middle school students in this new science," Obare says. "Teachers play an important role in training the next generation of scientists. They know what they need and they can take our experiments and see what develops."

But Obare is not stopping there either. She plans to develop outreach activities that will broaden understanding of nanoscale science and science in general among diverse groups and the general public through formal as well as informal education.

"Nanoscale science has technological, economical, environmental, societal and ethical implications," she notes. "Increased understanding and appreciation of the potential of nanoscale science is needed to create a competitive workforce."

A key member of WMU's Nanotechnology Research and Computation Center, Obare came to the university in 2004. She teaches inorganic and analytical chemistry courses and conducts research in the areas of inorganic materials chemistry, nanoscale materials fabrication, chemical and biological sensors, and mechanisms by multiple electron transfer.

Obare earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from West Virginia State University in 1998 and a doctoral degree in inorganic/analytical chemistry from the University of South Carolina in 2002. She subsequently spent two years at the Johns Hopkins University as a Camille and Henry Dreyfus postdoctoral fellow doing research in environmental chemistry.

For more information, contact Sherine Obare at sherine.obare@wmich.edu or (269) 387-2923.

Media contact: Jeanne Baron, (269) 387-8400, jeanne.baron@wmich.edu

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