A Binghamton University materials scientist, whose ingenious research could soon make it possible to safely and permanently “mop up” some of the most common and dangerous industrial pollutants on Earth, has been awarded a $100,000 per year National Science Foundation Career Award.
The honor is likely to mean at least $500,000 over the next five years to support the research of Scott Oliver. Oliver, who originally hails from Canada, is an assistant professor of chemistry in his fourth year at Binghamton. He received the award for his proposal to develop an entirely new class of microporous inorganic materials. These crystalline materials, filled with molecule-sized holes, enjoy a $2.9 billion annual global market. They are used in petroleum refining, water treatment, air purification, chemical processing, manufacturing, environmental control and gas processing. Oliver’s materials, however, will boast an important, and heretofore unheard of twist.
Microporous materials are naturally occurring minerals or synthetic compounds capable of trapping substances of the opposite charge within their pores. Until now, all of these “host” compounds–the world over–have been anionic, or negative in charge, so that only positively charged substances could reside as “guests” in their pores. Oliver and his team, however, have synthesized the first of what should be a new class of cationic, or positively charged, extended metal oxides to be used in anion-based applications. “It opens up a whole range of potential applications,” he said. “For us, we’re looking at anion trapping because most heavy metals form anions.”
That means his cationic compounds could be used to trap anionic pollutants, including such negatively charged pollutants as arsenates, phosphates, sulfates, and technetates, a by-product of the nuclear program sometimes referred to as “radioactive anions.”
Also, because Oliver’s cationic materials are inorganic, they are much more stable than their organic counterparts. They can stand up to high temperatures or acidic/basic conditions, making them ideal to catalyze a host of industrially important reactions based on anions, the practical applications of which could be far-reaching. Work to further develop the new class of materials will be supported by the NSF award.
Oliver is held in high regard by others besides the NSF. M. Stanley Whittingham, professor of chemistry and materials science and director of Binghamton’s Institute for Materials Research, speaks highly of Oliver. Whittingham said Oliver’s presence at Binghamton has been beneficial for all.
“Scott has made remarkable progress in setting up an active research program, funded by several outside agencies including two NSF grants the most recent of which is the highly prestigious CAREER award from NSF,” Whittingham said. “He has already successfully published in the top journals in the field. His arrival at Binghamton has tremendously benefited the materials effort on campus, and its infrastructure has significantly enabled his research.”
Oliver’s work, Whittingham noted, has been advanced by the Provost’s $300,000 investment in a new xray instrument and by the opportunity to work with University crystallographer Peter Zavalij. As a result, Oliver has been able to do research competitive with any in the country, and Oliver has taken full advantage, Whittingham said.
Oliver’s graduate advisor, Geoffrey A. Ozin, professor of materials chemistry at the University of Toronto, said he isn’t surprised that Oliver’s promise is being recognized by the NSF and by his colleagues at Binghamton.
“Scott’s graduate work with me was genuinely spectacular and deeply unusual. His thesis work opened a door into a realm of chemistry and materials that we had not known existed before,” Ozin said. “He is an outstanding young scientist with tremendous potential to make creative and significant contributions to the field of materials chemistry. He has the creativity, ambition and intellectual depth to be a world-class scientist. I expect this to continue for his working lifetime.”
Oliver, in turn, has great things to say about Ozin. “He is one of the top material chemists in the world, and he totally changed my life,” he said. So too, he admits, will the NSF career award.
“It makes all the difference. Now I can get the equipment, the chemicals and the grad student support I need,” he said. “It really changes everything. I can really get things rolling now.”
In addition to the cationic materials project for which Oliver received the award, he is also working on three other projects, which involve unprecedented approaches to problems in materials chemistry. Those include:
- Developing the use of organic polymers as a template within which inorganic materials can be grown. The organic template can then be stripped away by burning it away or dissolving it, leaving a highly stable inorganic material with micron-sized pores (as opposed to the nanometer-sized holes in the microporous cationic materials discussed earlier). These would be put to such possible uses as solar cells, water purification and thermal insulation.
- Developing a self-assembled monolayer or SAM to be used as the insulating layer in electronic devices. Oliver’s unique approach would circumvent the expensive process now being used involving the deposition of a metal film by thermal evaporation. The project can be expected to have industrial impact in the manufacture of a wide range of electronics including capacitors, displays, chips, and solar cells.
- A collaborative project with Professors Jungyun Cho, Bahgat Sammakia and Wayne Jones, funded through a seed grant from the Infotonics Consortium in Rochester. The team uses ceramics and SAM technology to produce coatings for a variety of surfaces, such as micromirror arrays used by NASA.
“All these ideas are not extensions of what’s out there,” Oliver said. “I haven’t seen anything like what we’re doing anywhere, and I think that really helped in (obtaining) the career award.”
Oliver knows his hard work has the potential of hitting real pay dirt, with discoveries that have significant commercial impact, and probably very soon.
“We’re working hard on it. I don’t think it will take anything like five more years. I think if we just keep at it, we could hit on it tomorrow with any of these projects.”
When that happens, it will come as no surprise to Oliver’s pre-kindergarten teacher who used to tell his mother repeatedly, “This kid is going to go far.”
But Oliver, who came to Binghamton straight from a postdoctoral position at Harvard, isn’t planning on going too far -at least not in any sense that would involve trading academia for industry, he said.
“I like both teaching and research,” he said. “Being here at Binghamton has been great. It’s really worked out.”