Photo by Lee Pellegrini

Boston College Assistant Professor of Chemistry Matthias Waegele, whose research explores potential routes to cleaner energy sources, has received a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation that will provide $675,000 in research funding during the next five years.

The NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development Program supports early-career faculty who “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the foundation. The program is intended to prepare faculty to be leaders who integrate teaching and research.

“I feel very fortunate to receive this CAREER award from the National Science Foundation,” said Waegele. “This award will provide important support to the research going on in my lab, which was developed thanks to an NSF grant I was awarded three years ago. This new award will further the development of the lab and our research agenda.”

Waegele, who joined the BC Chemistry faculty in 2015, is a physical chemist with research interests in electrocatalysis, a subfield of catalysis in which an electric potential is utilized to drive chemical transformations at a solid/liquid interface.

“Electrocatalysis is an intriguing approach because it can directly utilize electricity from renewable sources to facilitate chemical conversions,” Waegele said. “Further, the electric potential enables reactions that are not easily realizable with catalysts that work by supplying heat.”

Waegele said he and his team of researchers focus on chemical systems that show the potential for the production of renewable fuels and high-value commodity chemicals. Specifically, Waegele studies processes that convert carbon dioxide into fuels and other valuable chemicals.

“When petroleum products are burned, energy, water, and carbon dioxide are liberated. Because it is a greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide is an undesirable waste product of this process,” he explained. “If we could reverse this process with the input of renewable energy, we could continue to take advantage of the benefits of petroleum products without net emission of carbon dioxide.” 

In other words, Wagele said, his lab is exploring ways to recycle carbon dioxide. Such a recycling process would create what scientists call a “closed carbon cycle.” While various chemical routes of converting carbon dioxide to fuels are known, it is still not possible to carry out these processes with sufficient energy efficiency and the required degree of control, also known as product selectivity.

In this field of study, fundamental chemical questions are closely coupled to broad and global questions about sustainability that touch almost every aspect of modern society.
Matthias Waegele, Assistant Professor of Chemistry

With his NSF funding, Waegele will study the interplay between a liquid electrolyte and a copper electrode. This solid/liquid junction forms a catalytically active interface.

“This interface is highly complex,” he said. “Its catalytic properties sensitively depend on the chemical composition of the liquid and the surface structure of the electrode. What makes its study so challenging is that the interfacial characteristics evolve during reaction conditions. Central to the inquiry is how these evolving interfacial properties exert control over product selectivity during the conversion of carbon dioxide.”

The lab uses intricate measurement technologies to better understand the chemical reaction and how to control it. Waegele specializes in a technique known as surface-enhanced infrared absorption spectroscopy, or SEIRAS. This approach utilizes the interaction between light and matter to probe molecules at the interface during catalysis. In particular, in this spectroscopic technique, the vibrations of molecules are examined. These vibrations are specific to the chemical structures of molecules and can therefore be utilized to probe chemical reactions.

Traditionally, SEIRAS and product detection are carried out separately. “The different experimental conditions that are often employed during the two experiments make it very difficult to correlate the catalytic properties of the interface with observed products,” Waegele said.

To address this challenge, Waegele’s team couples SEIRAS with differential electrochemical mass spectrometry, known as DEMS, a technique that probes product formation during catalysis.

“Studying the interface with SEIRAS while monitoring product formation with DEMS at the same time allows us to understand how interfacial properties give rise to the products generated,” Waegele said. “We hope that our efforts will lead to a much deeper understanding how to steer the product selectivity of this intriguing process.

“It is exciting to work in a research field that is so dynamic and relevant to one of the greatest challenges of our time,” he said. “It also provides great learning opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students because in this field of study, fundamental chemical questions are closely coupled to broad and global questions about sustainability that touch almost every aspect of modern society.”

—Ed Hayward | University Communications | October 2019