Published: March 15, 2013

Wei Zhang, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Colorado Boulder, has won a prestigious Sloan Research Fellowship.

Awarded annually since 1955, the fellowships are given to early career scientists and scholars whose achievements and potential identify them as rising stars and as the next generation of scientific leaders. The 2013 fellowships were awarded to 126 U.S. and Canadian researchers.

“The Sloan Research Fellows are the best of the best among young scientists,” said Paul L. Joskow, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

“If you want to know where the next big scientific breakthrough will come from, look to these extraordinary men and women. The foundation is proud to support them during this pivotal stage of their careers.”

Zhang’s research group is developing novel materials with potential applications in solar-energy conversion, chemical sensing and catalysis and gas separation and storage. The gas-separation work could lead to new and improved mechanisms of “clean coal”—or carbon capture and sequestration—in which carbon dioxide is captured and pumped underground, where it can become inert.

Finding the most efficient means of capturing carbon emitted by burning coal will be important for some time to come, Zhang said. Even if the world vastly scales up its use of renewable energy, it will need to rely on fossil fuels during the transition, he said.

Zhang’s group has pioneered the development of very rigid, purely organic, three-dimensional “cage molecules,” which act as gas-catching and storage material.

“Some people compare our material to Legos,” Zhang said. “These compounds have very good selectivity in adsorption of CO2 or other gas molecules over nitrogen.”

Zhang said the development of selective molecular cages is “very exciting” because two primary gases in, say, coal-fired electric plants are CO2 and nitrogen. “If people can realize selective adsorption or permeation of CO2, to remove the CO2 from the flue-gas stream, that would be a huge deal. That would be really big.”

Technology based on Zhang’s line of research, if developed and deployed, would differ from the current method of carbon capture and sequestration, which uses liquid amine compounds, derived from ammonia.