Published March 28, 2019
UB chemist Timothy Cook has been named a recipient of the National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER award, one of the agency’s most prestigious accolades for early-career investigators.
Cook will use $675,000 in CAREER funding to design and study self-assembling molecules. As their name suggests, these compounds assemble themselves in the lab from Lego-like chemical building blocks that “snap” together when they’re added to a flask, heated and mixed.
Cook will also work with K-12 science teachers in Buffalo to design 3D-printed structures made from magnetic parts that self-assemble when they’re shaken together in a beaker or other container. These models are a fun, hands-on way of teaching chemistry, as they enable students to visualize processes similar to those occurring in real life when scientists design self-assembled molecules.
“Our lab does self-assembly chemistry. You mix things together and you make new molecules,” says Cook, assistant professor of chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences. “One of the neat things about self-assembly is that you can explore the properties of many different molecules quickly. We can make small changes very systemically. We can change how far apart certain atoms are, how big the final molecule is and how it’s shaped.
“We don’t have to make everything from scratch, and we can make new molecules much more quickly than we could using traditional methods of synthesis.”
Cook’s research focuses on the green economy: His team is working to create catalysts that drive reactions in hydrogen fuel cells, or that help transform carbon dioxide into compounds including carbon monoxide molecules, which can be used to make polymers including plastics. This kind of manufacturing process would benefit the environment by converting planet-warming carbon dioxide into useful products, and by reducing society’s reliance on fossil fuels as the raw material for creating plastic.
The catalysts that Cook is designing contain multiple metal atoms. Some catalysts of this kind take months to make using conventional laboratory processes. Cook’s self-assembly methods, in contrast, can yield similar compounds in as little as a few days or a week, starting with commercially available chemical products.
Cook’s work on K-12 classroom materials began as part of the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Partnership (ISEP), a UB-led partnership with Buffalo Public Schools, SUNY Buffalo State and the Buffalo Museum of Science to improve science education in Buffalo schools. The new NSF CAREER award will enable Cook to produce classroom kits containing 3D-printed magnetic building blocks for self-assembled structures, and to work with ISEP teachers on using these kits to teach science.