Chemistry Professors Receive NSF Award to Explore Lower-Energy Light

Research could lead to better-performing electronic devices, new applications

UM graduate students Austin Dorris (left) and Leigh Anna Hunt operate a spectrometer in Nathan Hammer’s laboratory in Coulter Hall. Photo by Nathan Hammer/UM Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry

OXFORD, Miss. – Two University of Mississippi professors have received a more-than-$500,000 National Science Foundation award to further explore using lower-energy light to drive systems that will improve daily life.

With hundreds of devices working by absorbing light and then using that energy, instruments that could be improved by the professors’ research include solar cells, solar-charging batteries, night vision technologies, infrared cameras and optical telecommunications.

The two professors are Jared Delcamp, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and Nathan Hammer, Margaret McLean Coulter Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

“It is an honor to be entrusted with federal funding,” said Delcamp, who joined the faculty in 2013. “We’re well-suited to take on this project, and it could have very important outcomes that benefit a wide range of fields and society as a whole.

“It is exciting to think about starting the project. This is something we have been building toward since my arrival at Ole Miss seven years ago, and it is really at the heart of what we knew we wanted to study then. Incredibly, that time is finally now.”

The $550,000 award will fund interdisciplinary research at UM that will use a diverse range of chemistry fields that university faculty explore, including organic, inorganic, materials and physical chemistry.

Nathan Hammer

“This work builds upon our recent strong collaboration the past few years and should shed much light on fundamental charge transfer processes important to developing batteries, other energy storage media and energy harvesting devices,” Hammer said.

In nature, green plants and other organisms use photosynthesis to convert lower-energy light into other energy forms. The professors hope their research will lead to a better understanding of this process to help enhance artificial systems to improve a range of devices.

“Currently, our understanding in science is limited to higher-energy light, where a lot of the energy can be wasted while achieving a functioning system,” Delcamp said.

“Our primary objective is to design organic molecules that can split charges after absorbing light at an inorganic surface. These systems are incredibly robust in many cases, and the use of organic molecules lets the system be broadly tunable with respect to the light energy used.

“We have an array of technical strategies we have proposed to accomplish this, but really it is all about using the currently unusable energies to drive important processes.”

While transforming lower-energy light into fuel is fundamental in nature, a better-designed artificial photosynthetic system could change the way we interact with the world, Delcamp said.

Jared Delcamp

“It is not outlandish to imagine a world where your car’s exhaust is as valuable as the gasoline you currently put in it,” he said. “Or, a pair of glasses could be used to make the world around us appear as visually vibrant at night as it does during the day.

“Electric bills could be dramatically lowered. Energy could become more easily stored. This work is at the center of all of these areas and could unlock much better versions of all of these things.”

Beyond the research, the team will use the award to conduct outreach activities with the general public and several student groups representing a broad population of campus. The goal of the outreach programs will be to encourage science, technology, engineering and mathematics involvement from a diverse student body.

The professors also plan to hold a yearly summer research program that will bring STEM students onto the Ole Miss campus to conduct independent research related to the award.

Delcamp and Hammer, who joined the UM faculty in 2007, have been working in this line of research together for seven years, and each professor’s exploration goes back years before they met. Both professors have received prestigious National Science Foundation Career Awards (Hammer in 2010; Delcamp in 2015), along with other funding from additional sources, including the Department of Energy and NASA.

“The National Science Foundation has made a considerable investment in their research because it recognizes the importance and significance of this work,” said Greg Tschumper, professor and chair of chemistry and biochemistry. “This science has the potential to make a positive impact on our daily lives.

“The funding from NSF also provides opportunities for students from Mississippi and the region to gain valuable research experience in the labs of Dr. Delcamp and Dr. Hammer.”

Titled “Photoinduced Interfacial Charge Transfers with Organic Sensitizers Using Low Energy Photons and Fundamental Physical Organic Design Concepts,” the NSF award, No. 1954922, is for three years.