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Joel Rosenthal with a model of an experiment involving porphyrinoids, a class of molecules that intensely absorb light, showing up as bright green or purple.
Joel Rosenthal, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry
at the University of Delaware, has received a highly competitive
Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science
Foundation (NSF) to support his research in renewable energy and
molecular energy conversion.
Rosenthal has won widespread attention recently for his work seeking
new catalyst platforms that use electricity generated from solar energy
to convert carbon dioxide into synthetic liquid fuels for powering cars,
homes and businesses. When that type of conversion is successful,
carbon dioxide, or CO2, a major greenhouse gas, can provide a
feedstock for the production of synthetic petroleum, offering a
potential route to the replacement of fossil fuels.
Last year, his research team developed an efficient catalyst using bismuth a plentiful and inexpensive substance for the CO2 conversion process. Those results were published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society and led to Rosenthals selection to receive a prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship and a Camille and Henry Dreyfus Award in Environmental Chemistry, which provided funds to support a postdoctoral researcher in his lab for two years.
The NSF award, which totals $650,000 over five years, funds research
with similar goals involving energy catalysis but pertains to distinct
science from those previous awards, Rosenthal said. Instead of focusing
on the aspect of his work that deals with the bismuth-based catalyst,
the Career Award supports his research on a class of molecules called
porphyrinoids, which intensely absorb light.
Porphyrin is a common cofactor that is heavily relied upon in
biology, Rosenthal said. Porphyrin derivatives are used in nature for
light-harvesting and are found in the photosynthetic architecture of
plants. Porphyrins are also used by nature as platforms for many
catalytic transformations and the activation and transport of small
Porphyrin has wonderful photochemical properties but is limited in
its ability to transfer multiple electrons, Rosenthal said, which is a
critical process for many of the energy conversion reactions that his
research group is studying. In recent years, his team has developed a
structure called the phlorin, which is a novel porphyrinoid with
enhanced multi-electron redox (reduction-oxidation) properties.
Before that development, he said, There had been no directed
synthesis of phlorins, and their light-absorbing and electron-transfer
properties had not been explored.
With the NSF support, his research team will continue to synthesize
and study molecules that can be used as catalysts, particularly for
molecular energy conversion reactions. Rosenthal noted that because of
the porphyrins photochemical properties, the light they can harvest can
be useful in directly driving the photochemical or solar catalytic
Training and mentoring future scientists
Rosenthals NSF Career Award also includes a two-part outreach
component that targets ways to teach and engage young people. In
particular, he and his lab will work directly with both UD
undergraduates and Newark area high school students, in chemistry and
The UD portion of the project involves revamping the inorganic
chemistry laboratory experience for chemistry majors, enhancing the
current lab module by providing students with the opportunity to conduct
modern experiments that take advantage of electrochemical analyses
using individual, hand-held instruments. Adding electrochemistry to the
lab course is critical, Rosenthal said, because these techniques are
more than ever an important focus of inorganic chemistry.
In addition, the award provides for summer research opportunities for
two high school students who will participate in authentic research
experiences in Rosenthals lab. Laboratory work in high school
chemistry, he said, often involves a cookbook approach of following a
set of instructions to get a predetermined result.
Real research isnt anything like that, Rosenthal said. Its
discovery, and high school students who experience that sense of
discovery are more likely to want to pursue a career in STEM research. I
had the opportunity to work in a lab when I was in high school, and it
made all the difference to me.
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