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Nanocontrol freak
A Penn State chemist strives to control the arrangement of atoms to develop novel materials
24 October 2019
Ray Schaak - Credit: Nate Follmer

Nature provides many types of materials, with a variety of atomic arrangements, but these aren’t enough for Ray Schaak and his research group. They want more control, and they’re developing new approaches for making innovative materials so they can influence key aspects of the material’s properties.  

“You get atoms in certain combinations for free,” said Schaak, DuPont Professor of Materials Chemistry. “We want to figure out how we can go beyond that. How can we be control freaks and get what we want, not just what nature gives us?”

Unlike most of the other research featured in this “nano”-themed issue of the Science Journal, Schaak and his research team work in inorganic solid-state chemistry—systems that contain little or no carbon. They focus on controlling the arrangement of atoms in materials that range in size from nanoscale particles to macroscale, bulk solids that you can see with the naked eye.

The majority of research in the Schaak lab is focused around fundamental science, with no particular application in mind. He looks for lingering problems preventing progress that, if solved, could open the floodgates to scientific advancement.

“I really like to think about scientific bottlenecks,” said Schaak. “We look to develop enabling capabilities that can accelerate a process and open up new directions of research. These kinds of questions are at the heart of what my lab does, and we are always excited to see when these capabilities lead to new applications.”

One such application that Schaak’s research led to was the discovery that a nanoparticle composed of nickel and phosphorus could catalyze, or trigger, a chemical reaction that produces hydrogen from water. Producing hydrogen from water can be crucial for fuel cells and solar cells, but the process requires energy and the best-known catalyst for the reaction is platinum, which is rare and expensive. The new nanoparticle catalyst is helping to reduce the cost of making clean energy.

Years ago, the production of a single type of nanoparticle like this could occupy a doctoral student for most of their thesis research. While there have been great strides in our understanding of how to design nanoparticles, making them still mostly takes a tour-de-force effort. This is precisely the kind of scientific bottleneck that Schaak’s team savors. In a recently published paper, Schaak and two of his graduate students developed a straightforward mix-and-match method that allowed them to produce 47 different complex nanoparticles from three simple building blocks—a nanodesigner’s toolkit.

“We’re helping to fundamentally change how researchers think about bridging the design and synthesis of nanoparticles and inorganic solids,” said Schaak. “I’ve worked with a lot of groups brainstorming ideas for materials to suit a particular purpose. What I find is that their brainstorming tends to be limited to materials that they already know are possible to make. We are designing modularity and adaptability into our designer’s toolkit of materials that opens up people’s eyes to new possibilities. It feeds innovation.”

To continue driving this innovation, Schaak’s research requires specialized instrumentation, a dedicated team of students and postdocs, and collaboration with scientists from diverse fields. He was quick to point out that Penn State is one of the few places in the world where all of these components come together.  

“Penn State has one of the best materials research infrastructures in the country,” said Schaak. “Other universities have bits and pieces, but our Materials Characterization Lab, which is part of the Materials Research Institute, has one of the most comprehensive portfolios of instrumentation with dedicated staff who play an integral role in our ability to do high-level research. Barriers to collaboration are much lower here compared to other places I’ve seen. Being able to plug into all of that has allowed my research group to flourish.”