Nanomaterials—substances that measure a billionth of a
meter (a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers
thick)—have been a hot topic among scientists for the past
decade or so. They are also the main focus of Luisa
Whittaker-Brooks’ (PhD ’11, MS ’09)
Since 2013, her findings on these miniscule materials have helped her earn more than $100,000 in funding. Not bad for a scientist just a few years out of graduate school.
Whittaker-Brooks, 32, has been intrigued by chemistry since high
school. A teacher in her native Panama recognized her as an
exceptional student and encouraged her to pursue chemistry as a
career. In 2007, the budding scientist came to UB as a Fulbright
fellow; in 2011, she received the Materials Research Society’s highest
award presented to graduate students. She also completed
her master’s and her PhD within three and a half years.
For her doctoral research, Whittaker-Brooks studied vanadium
oxide, an inorganic compound with intriguing properties when
prepared as a nanomaterial. “The cool thing is, when you work
on a nanoscale, you start seeing extraordinary properties you
don’t see in bulk materials,” she explains. For
example, bulk copper bends, copper nanoparticles don’t. This
feature of nanomaterials opens up a wide range of applications for
medical, electronic and other fields. It’s as if
Whittaker-Brooks and other material chemists have a whole new
periodic table to play with.
At UB, she worked under Sarbajit Banerjee, a former assistant
professor of chemistry, who led a study proposing that vanadium
oxide could be used to coat windows and block sunlight when
it’s hot out. “I always called it my baby,”
Whittaker-Brooks says of the material. “It has a unique
temperature response. When it’s hot, it turns opaque. When
it’s cooler, it’s transparent.” The only problem:
The transformation occurs at 68 C (154 F), which is too high to
make it a viable technology.
Her PhD work focused on decreasing this temperature. “We
were able to get the trigger point down to room temperature. In
fact, a U.S. company optioned the patent, and now the technology is
approaching commercialization. I got my PhD and made some
The awards have continued to roll in since graduation. While
performing postdoctoral research at Princeton in 2013,
Whittaker-Brooks received a L’Oréal USA for Women in
Science Fellowship, accompanied by a $60,000 research grant.
Two years later, she won an additional $50,000 in funding through
the Marion Milligan Mason Award, presented by the American
Association for the Advancement of Science to four women in the
U.S. who are beginning careers in the chemical sciences.
“She’s very gifted,” says Banerjee.
“She’s done an incredible amount of important work, and
these awards recognize her potential to be a leader in the field. I
think she’s a superstar.”
Today, Whittaker-Brooks is an assistant professor of chemistry
at the University of Utah. Her research group—made up of 14
students ranging from high school to postdoctorate—is trying
to improve alternative renewable energy sources, specifically by
combining solar and thermal energy.
It’s been suggested that if all the solar energy that hit
the Earth in one hour could be collected, it would fulfill the
energy needs of the planet for one year. But currently, silicon
solar panels are only about 25 percent efficient, meaning 75
percent of the energy is dissipated as heat.
Whittaker-Brooks’ team hopes to develop the nanotechnology to
help collect this lost heat and convert it into electricity.
“We just need to find the right technology to increase
this energy conversion,” she says. “I would be happy if
I could get efficiency to 45 percent.” That would certainly
be an incredible accomplishment—but just another day at the
office for Whittaker-Brooks.
This is SO Amazing and seems it will soon provide Practical applications to the World at Large.
BRAVO to Prof Whittaker-Brooks.