Published: Jan. 28, 2020 By

MoleculesEarlier this month, Assistant Professor Adam Holewinski earned a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation for his proposal, “Understanding Bifunctionality in Organic Electro-oxidation Catalysis.”

“With this proposal, I’m trying to understand the molecular-scale mechanisms underpinning oxidation processes relevant to diverse applications including fuel cells, wastewater treatment and chemical synthesis, such as for building blocks of green-friendly plastics,” Holewinski said.

“A particularly novel and exciting outcome would involve using renewable electricity for point-of-use synthesis of chemicals, for example to reduce the resources needed for certain agricultural treatments.”

Holewinski’s CAREER-winning proposal centers on understanding the reaction mechanisms of small organic molecules that are interconnected by the addition or removal of oxygen or hydrogen atoms by so-called "bi-functional" catalysts.

“Each component of a bi-functional catalyst is intended to perform a specific job, such as binding to a molecular fragment that will later combine with a different fragment,” Holewinski said. “But there’s mounting evidence that on many materials it may not happen the way researchers have previously assumed.

“We are addressing this inconsistency with a whole suite of analytical techniques, including one novel method we are developing in my group, where we monitor the isotopic composition of a product with fast-time resolution and use that information to discover what intermediaries are present on a catalyst’s surface. This is highly complementary to capabilities we have gained through another recent award, through which we acquired an instrument that measures the composition of materials’ surfaces.”

This past summer, Holewinski led a successful team proposal to the NSF Major Research Instrumentation program, enabling the group to acquire a low-energy ion scattering spectrometer, due to arrive this summer. This device measures the top layer composition of a given material one atom deep. This precision will lead to a better understanding of catalytic behavior and the long-term vision of true, atomic-scale control of catalytic reactions.

As part of the grant’s outreach and education component, Holewinski is also working with a local high school on interactive workshops to enrich an “Energy Academy” program that prepares students for careers or further education in the growing energy sector.

Holewinski credits the support of his research group during the CAREER proposal process.

“A number of students have really gone above and beyond to get critical data with deadlines looming. I couldn’t be here without them!”