“Shaping” the synthesis of nanoscale materials
There is a general need for materials by design. That is, if we understand how crystallite size and shape combine with composition to express a particular property, it should be possible to identify specific nanoscale structures with properties desirable for an application. However, to realize the possibility of materials by design, the synthetic toolkit must exist to achieve the desired material as crystals with a high level of structural precision. Dr. Sara Skrabalak, James H. Rudy Professor of Chemistry at Indiana University, is building that toolkit. Additionally, she and her team’s understanding of structure-function relationships can ultimately lead to materials with enhanced properties in catalysis, solar energy conversion, chemical sensing, biomedical applications, and more.
Few groups are capable of achieving the high level of structural precision demonstrated by Dr. Skrabalak’s team. Moreover, her work provides a paradigm in which to approach nanomaterial synthesis and design which should be generally translatable to new systems. In this way, Dr. Skrabalak hopes to move beyond the trial and error approach and really design materials that can make an impact on society. This complicated task involves building a toolkit that is sensitive to structural intricacies, like shape, as well as uniformity of chemical processes that dictate nanomaterial design. Motivated by both designs that are successfully created from concept and serendipitous discovery, Dr. Skrabalak and her team view chemical synthesis as a creative approach to making sense of the world and the materials needed for new applications.
Current research includes:
Fundamental Research: Dr. Skrabalak, is developing the synthetic tool kit required for developing new materials. Through basic research, she and her team are able to take part in the creative process that requires the realization of nanomaterials that have never before existed.
Energy Applications: Dr. Skrabalak and her team are identifying what make materials truly efficient for catalysts and energy-based applications. They are focusing on catalysis and photocatalysis and are interested in finding ways to design materials to accelerate the rates of reactions. Ultimately, Dr. Skrabalak hopes that by elucidating the shapes that are most efficient for these applications, her research will provide more sustainable energy platforms and reduce our use of limited resources.
Chemical Sensing: Dr. Skrabalak and her students are applying their synthetic toolkit to make nanoscale materials capable of detecting changes in their local environment. These materials could be used to detect with high sensitivity environmental toxins, for example lead ions, and molecules implicated in different diseases.
As a child, Dr. Skrabalak had dreams of being everything from a librarian to a paleontologist. In fact, she even wrote letters to astronauts about her dreams of flying through space in the future. However, as she began her undergraduate career she settled upon art history/archeology as her major. As she began to take various survey classes, she decided to also enroll in general chemistry because she enjoyed the subject in high school. She found that chemistry was challenging but interesting and with the encouragement of her academic advisor, decided to major in chemistry. Furthermore, her academic advisor encouraged Dr. Skrabalak to engage in undergraduate research. She found this experience to be a fantastic creative outlet where she was able to explore the unknown and test her ideas. In that early work, Dr. Skrabalak examined how the size and shape of materials influenced properties and that theme has continued with her until this day.
Dr. Skrabalak says that she finds it “incredible that through chemistry, scientists can manipulate the assembly of atoms into nanoscale structures with intricate forms.” Drawing inspiration from the artists of centuries before, she and her team are able to understand the chemistry that underpins masterpieces, new materials, and novel technologies. For instance, long before scientists understood why nanoparticles appear the way they do, artists were creating stained-glass windows that relied upon nanoparticles to give rise to their brilliant colors.
In her free time, aside from research, Dr. Skrabalak enjoys traveling and gardening.