ASU professor to synthesize new materials with NSF CAREER award

December 10, 2021

Assistant professor Christina birkel, an inorganic chemist at Arizona State University School of Molecular Sciences, recently won a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation.

Birkel and his group are working diligently to create new materials that can be used for renewables, catalysts and permanent magnets.

Christina Birkel is an inorganic chemist and Assistant Professor in the School of Molecular Sciences at ASU. Photo by Mary Zhu / ASU
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“I am very happy that our group has been selected for this award, and I am grateful to all of the team members who have played a vital role in achieving this goal and to the National Science Foundation for funding our future projects around the MAX and MXenes phases. Said Birkel.

Professor Tijana Rajh, director of the School of Molecular Sciences, part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said: “Christina Birkel and her group are making extremely innovative molecular sciences, developing new solid state materials. Our youngest faculty members at the School of Molecular Sciences have an extraordinary track record of achievement, and Professor Birkel is an example in this regard. “

The prestigious CAREER program supports early-career development activities for teacher-researchers who most effectively integrate research and education into their organization’s mission. It offers five-year research grants to each grantee.

Making new materials

In the age of machine learning and data-driven research, a plethora of possible materials are being explored, but synthesizing them in the lab, especially in the solid state, is often anything but straightforward.

At the heart of this award is the fabrication of new types of materials. Materials are everywhere around us and are the driving force behind innovative new semiconductor technologies focused on batteries, sensors and magnets.

Of the utmost importance is the discovery of new and better materials, as well as understanding their characteristics, such as their structure and properties, and how these factors can be adjusted during their preparation.

In this project, the Birkel group will focus on solid compounds that contain different metals and either carbon, nitrogen or both, called carbides, nitrides or carbonitrides, respectively. They offer a huge playing field for the discovery of new types of materials with useful properties since they can (i) mix and match different elements, and (ii) produce them in different forms.

Birkel started working on metal oxides and chalcogenides years ago, and recently his group has been very active in the field of carbides (called MAX phases). Solid state microwave heating (using household and industrial furnaces) is an excellent technique to focus on for synthesizing carbides. Beautifully layered crystal structures are produced.

SMS Faculty Video Christina Birkel and her group receive the NSF CAREER Award for Materials Research

The Birkel Group does a lot of electron microscopy, X-ray diffraction, and structural analysis on these materials. They are very special in that these materials can be exfoliated i.e. a layer of “A” elements in the structure (usually aluminum) can be very selectively etched and you can end up with 2D materials (called MXenes). 2D materials are macroscopic in two dimensions and nanoscopic in third. These materials have many potential applications.

Birkel pushes her research on the MAX phase to create entirely new chemical compositions and forms, for example threads, spheres and hollow spheres. These compounds will have unique mechanical behaviors, such as self-healing at higher temperatures, as well as interesting magnetic behavior.

Having hollow spheres, films and wires opens the way to new uses for these materials. One can, for example, consider a way to integrate threads into fabrics and produce portable electronic devices that monitor sweat levels or generate energy on the go.

Birkel Group

The Birkel Group of the School of Molecular Sciences: (left to right) Jan Paul Siebert, Andreas Reitz, Christina Birkel, Rose Snyder, Jordan Sinclair, John Jamboretz and Andrew Wasserbeck. Photo by Lauren Tackett / ASU

Plus, the team can break these solids down into atomically thin sheets, which are thinner than a billionth of a meter. Achieving this size regime allows particular physical phenomena that are not accessible in the largest structures. Different reactions can be catalyzed on their surfaces; for example, the production of hydrogen gas from water, which has big implications for the production of renewable and cleaner energy.

When it comes to 2D materials, it’s important to find out how the surface chemistry changes during the exfoliation process. How can they manipulate the surface chemistry, and ultimately how does this influence the catalytic properties?

The future results of Birkel’s group are expected, as they use powerful and innovative techniques for the production of many inorganic compounds despite the fact that there are many complications to be solved along the way.

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