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Chemist's 'light touch' earns CAREER Award from NSF

UC chemist William Connick has found a way to get a single particle of light - one photon - to do twice the expected amount of work.

Date: 4/4/2002
By: Chris Curran
Phone: 556-1806
UC chemist William Connick has found a way to get a single particle of light - one photon - to do twice the expected amount of work.

The National Science Foundation rewarded Connick for his creative approach with one of its prestigious CAREER Awards for promising young faculty. A typical photochemical reaction uses one photon to transfer one electron. Connick and his research group have found a way to use a single photon to initiate the transfer of two electrons. "That's exciting, because you're getting greater efficiency," said Connick. "But it's also a new reaction."

Connick presented details of the research at the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers meeting in New Orleans March 25-30.

One of the most intriguing findings was the timing of the electron transfers. Usually, an electron will return to its starting position in milliseconds or faster. But Connick's students have found a long-lived charge separation that appears to last for several minutes. "That's astounding."

Nature has already figured out how to handle multiple electron transfers very efficiently in photosynthesis, a process by which plants use light energy from the sun to convert water and carbon dioxide into sugar.

However, there are several other important applications for Connick's research. Nitrogen could be more easily converted into ammonia to make fertilizer. Carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced if the gas could be changed in another useful compound through electron transfers.

Connick said the ultimate application would be splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen for fuel. "That's the Holy Grail. Hydrogen is the ideal fuel. People talk about the hydrogen economy of the future. Instead of barrel of oil, we'll be talking about pounds of hydrogen."

The NSF CAREER awards also include a teaching component, and Connick is working with chemistry department head Marshall Wilson to develop two new courses as part of a master's of science in teaching degree sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences. The first course will be offered this spring and will focus on the applications of chemistry for high school teachers.

In addition, Connick is collaborating with Anna Gudmondsdottir, another chemistry CAREER Award winner, to design a new laser laboratory that will give students more hands-on experience with the latest equipment.

Connick is also committed to undergraduate research and research opportunities for women. He has had 16 undergrads working in his lab since joining the UC faculty in 1998. "I feel very strongly about this. It's a great mentoring opportunity for the graduate students, and the atmosphere of the lab is a lot more fun."

The CAREER Award is only the latest recognition of Connick's contributions to chemistry. Last year, he received a Beckman Young Investigator Award, and one of his graduate students Hershel Jude received a prestigious national fellowship from the Link Energy Foundation.

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