The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program offers the National Science Foundation's most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. Activities pursued by early-career faculty build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.
Assistant Professor of Chemistry Christopher Barile's potentially life-changing research and his enthusiasm for sharing his love of chemistry with his students made him an exceptional recipient of the NSF CAREER award. Below he answers a few questions about his research, outreach efforts, and how his work has evolved.
Can you describe the research your CAREER award will support?
The CAREER award will support graduate and undergraduate research in my laboratory that focuses on electrocatalysis, or the speeding up of electrically-driven reactions. We will be studying new strategies to make these catalysts efficient, durable, and inexpensive. In particular, we will use polymer layers to modulate catalysts that are supported on electrode surfaces. This approach will afford a detailed picture of how these catalysts operate.
What are the real-world implications of this research? What do you hope to achieve?
We will begin by studying two reactions central to renewable energy and environmental technologies. The first of these is the conversion of carbon dioxide into fuels such as methane, ethylene, methanol, and ethanol. Devices that facilitate this reaction could one day be implemented in point sources of carbon dioxide emissions like power plants. Such a breakthrough would go a long way towards mitigating climate change. The dream is to set up a cycle in which carbon dioxide is converted to one or more of these fuels, and then these fuels could be harnessed in fuel cells to power vehicles or other devices. This scheme would allow society to create a closed-loop recycling of carbon.
The second reaction we will focus on is the conversion of nitrate to benign nitrogen gas. Nitrate is a component of fertilizer and a major environmental pollutant, particularly in waterways. A great example is Lake Tahoe. Increased nitrate concentrations have led to the increased growth of algae, which has decreased the lake’s famous water clarity. The nitrate in fertilizers comes from chemical processes that start with nitrogen gas in the air. However, there is no process to convert that nitrate back to nitrogen once it is in the environment. So just like with carbon dioxide conversion, nitrate conversion catalysts could help this problem by closing the loop and enabling nitrogen recycling.
What spurred this area of research for you? How has it evolved?
"I believe that if that deeper understanding can be uncovered, it will open the floodgates for exciting and world-changing research, far beyond what can be achieved through a single, perhaps fortuitous, discovery."
I have had a long-time interest in catalysis dating back from when I did chemistry research as an undergraduate. The most intriguing aspect of this research to me is that we know that it is possible to carry out the world-changing reactions we need. The benchtop experiments have been done. The surprisingly difficult part is finding catalysts that facilitate those reactions while meeting all of the other criteria- durability, selectivity, inexpensiveness, and manufacturability- that are required for practical use. For many of these reactions, it feels like the chemistry community is really close to finding a useable solution, and that is one of the reasons why there are thousands of scientists across the globe working on these problems, hoping to push a technology to the finish line. But then you look at the literature and realize that we have been “close” for thirty or more years. This realization has caused me to take a step back and really try to analyze the fundamental science and see what researchers have been missing. The CAREER award will allow me to pursue catalysis research from a different angle from other researchers, and hopefully, in the end, come away with a deeper understanding of how catalysis works. In the earlier days as a graduate student, I rode on the hope that I would get lucky and discover the next best catalyst. My shift towards aiming for deeper understanding is the main way my research has evolved over the years. I believe that if that deeper understanding can be uncovered, it will open the floodgates for exciting and world-changing research, far beyond what can be achieved through a single, perhaps fortuitous, discovery.
The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program offers the National Science Foundation's most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education. How are you planning to integrate education and outreach in your CAREER project?
I have been infatuated with chemistry demonstrations since I was a teenager. I know for myself and many other students who major in chemistry, the flashes, bangs, and color changes are what initially get us hooked. In teaching undergraduate courses, I always try to incorporate demonstrations. When I started out at UNR, I found it really time-consuming and difficult to put together these demonstrations. One of the most frustrating aspects was that there is no centralized resource for finding and developing science demonstrations. Although there are lots of great resources on YouTube and other websites, the problem is it is all very scattered. The core outreach component of the CAREER is to develop a comprehensive online database of science demonstrations called SciDemoWiki. The website will be driven through a wiki-platform in the same way that Wikipedia is run. We will be initially populating the database with our own demonstrations, but the hope is that SciDemoWiki will eventually become self-sustaining by educators across the world.
How do you hope to have an impact on your students’ lives and futures as scientists?
I hope that I can show them that life as a scientist is an immense privilege that should come with immense responsibility and humility. I also want them to learn from me that there is value in taking risks. A healthy embrace of failure fueled by perseverance and curiosity will result in growth beyond their wildest imagination.
What’s next for you, your research and your career?
There are many ideas I would like to pursue, both in research and pedagogy. These projects range from the very pragmatic to the very esoteric to the possibly impossible. The hardest question is how to prioritize them all!