NSF CAREER award winner 'microwaves' next-generation materials for emerging technologies
Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017
MANHATTAN — A Kansas State University chemist has earned a National Science Foundation CAREER award of more than $700,000 to develop a more efficient and safer way of etching semiconductor nanocrystals. Her work could lead to more energy-efficient lighting and greener technology.
The Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, Program is the NSF's most prestigious awards program in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.
Emily McLaurin, assistant professor of chemistry, will use the award for her project "Microwave-Assisted Ionic Liquid Etching of Colloidal III-V Semiconductor Nanocrystals."
Semiconductors are a class of solid materials with electrical conductivity that form the basic components of electronic circuits, light-emitting diodes and sensor devices. They are etched — a process that is much like sanding — to remove oxygen and organic — or carbon-based — impurities from their surfaces, McLaurin said.
McLaurin's work uses microwaves in the etching process with the goal of more efficiently producing safer, superior semiconductor nanocrystals known as quantum dots.
"Quantum dots have unique properties that depend on their size," McLaurin said. "As they decrease in size, you can tune the color they glow from red to blue. They're used in commercial display technologies such as TVs, phones and tablets because they're very bright and can provide more colors than other displays. Quantum dots are also important for research in biology, where they are used as luminescent sensors, and in emerging solar cell technologies."
Despite existing for more than 20 years, quantum dot production methods are inefficient and often require toxic heavy metal components, McLaurin said. Her use of microwaves provides an alternative approach that eliminates these negative aspects and could make it possible to use these materials in biological sensing and imaging.
"We need to make sure we have the next generation of materials ready for emerging technologies," McLaurin said. "Microwave chemistry gives us a unique way to do this."
Dan Higgins, head of the university's chemistry department in the College of Arts and Sciences, said the CAREER Award is an important recognition for McLaurin's work in the lab and classroom, as well as her outreach efforts.
"It is wonderful to see Dr. McLaurin's growing research and teaching programs recognized through this prestigious award," Higgins said. "Her research in the development of greener methods and materials for the synthesis of semiconducting nanocrystals will ultimately lead to enhanced energy efficiency in a range of technologies. She is using these same concepts in her outreach efforts to help build interest in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — disciplines among young students."
McLaurin has developed lab experiments based on her work for middle, high school and undergraduate students. By using simple microwave-based experiments, the students can learn relevant nanotechnology and renewable energy applications. Her outreach is part of the university's partnership with the Kansas Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, and she is reaching a diverse student base and helping generate interest in the STEM fields by young women and underrepresented students.
"As a new investigator, this award will play a key role in my career, both stimulating the progress of my talented research team and engaging the next generation of scientists through learning experiences with these new materials," she said.
McLaurin joined the university in 2013. She earned a bachelor's degree from the University of California, San Diego, and a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She also served as a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Washington.