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Physics professor works on the cutting-edge of materials science

March 3, 2014

timoTimo Thonhauser, assistant professor of physics, CEES faculty affiliate, and recent recipient of both the National Science Foundation’s Career Award and the Wake Forest Award for Excellence in Research, was drawn to science for many of the same reasons as others in the field — he wanted to help explain how the world around us works. He found an academic home in solid-state physics, or the study of the properties of solid matter, where he set to work using supercomputers to model the matter around us and its interactions with other matter. Through this work he found a way to use his expertise in solid-state modelling to address some of the biggest energy challenges that are facing us today. His recent work has investigated materials central to two hot topics in energy: hydrogen storage for the next generation of fossil fuel-free cars and capture of various gases, including greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane.

“It is not if, but when, fossil fuels run out,” says Thonhauser. For this reason the search for viable alternative transportation fuels has been ongoing for some time, and still faces significant challenges. Hydrogen is a fuel that can be readily converted into electricity to power cars much more efficiently than internal combustion engines, but storage of large amounts of it is difficult. Through work funded by the National Science Foundation, Thonhauser and his team are working on the next generation of hydrogen storage materials, which will have the capacity to hold hydrogen in compact and easy-to-use packages. Their goal is to develop a material that will behave like a sponge for hydrogen, a solid framework that will readily take up hydrogen and hold it, and release that hydrogen when the conditions are right.

Thonhauser is also part of a trio of Department of Energy-funded researchers investigating the utility of metal organic frameworks in capturing and sequestering gases. These metal organic frameworks, or MOFs, are unique porous materials composed of metal ions in carbon-based structures. These materials can be tailor-made to have the necessary characteristics to capture target molecules; a nearly infinite array of possible MOF makeups provide a nearly infinite set of gas capture properties. Research by Thonhauser and his colleagues aims to infer, through computer modelling, how different MOFs will interact with different compounds and then, through development and characterization of the MOFs, to test those hypotheses. The ultimate goal of this research is to improve our knowledge of these unique materials so that they can eventually be employed as filters to remove pollutants from air and industrial exhaust.

In a world filled with challenges, Timo Thonhauser and his team are working hard to find solutions. By bringing cutting-edge computer modeling to bear on these pressing issues, they are paving the way for the development of novel materials and methods to address them.