In her lab at Davidson Hall, Amanda Morris and her student researchers are trying to mimic the ways plants use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide to storable food. Their aim: Create a chemical spark via photosynthetic cells that can create and store energy. Green, sustainable energy.

“I want to take sunlight and convert carbon dioxide into something useful,” said Morris, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science.

“What plants do, I want to try to do in a beaker,” Morris added. “Carbon dioxide is one of the largest waste products of the energy industry and our newly reported catalysts have the potential to convert this waste stream into a commercially viable feedstock. Additionally, it addresses the environmental concerns of carbon dioxide emissions.” 

Morris and her students are making strides to do just that as they build new metal organic frameworks capable of the conversion of carbon dioxide to use­ful chemical feedstocks. The framework is actually a three-dimensional, crystalline powder that can oxidize water and use the electrons produced to reduce carbon dioxide to methane or higher order alcohols.

Jie Zhu holds powder

Jie Zhu holds powder
Jie Zhu, who graduated in May with a Ph.D in chemistry, looks at a metal–organic framework developed in the lab of Amanda Morris.

The new material even has been named “VPI100” in honor of Virginia Tech.

Work in the field has challenged scientists who cannot predict framework stability at high temperatures and in different solutions. However, work by Morris, doctoral student Jie Zhu, and undergraduate researcher Ann Marie May bring the field one step closer to meeting this challenge. 

“The coolest part of this project is that this could be a pioneering work in this type of framework that may lead to more exciting dis­coveries,” said Zhu, who graduated in May and is now a post-doctoral scholar at the Universi­ty of California San Diego. “For the next step ... this material can be used with other materials (such as a hydrogel) to work as a hybrid multifunctional system for flow chemistry, which is widely used in industry.”

Last year, Morris renewed a three-year U.S. Department of Energy grant she received in 2014 for this work. The renewal came in at $540,000, on top of the original $450,000. The work de­scribed here was published in the Journal of American Chemical Society, the premier journal for the chemistry field, in December. 

Student Ann Marie May in lab
Ann Marie May is an undergraduate researcher in Amanda Morris' inorganic and energy chemistry lab at Davidson Hall.

The material not only has clear implications for the energy sector, there’s a potential medical use as well, including the treatment of high blood pressure and biomedical imaging.

If the future of the crystalline powder is multipronged, the futures of the students in Morris’ lab are limitless.

“Since starting my research, I have found that no feeling can equate to sitting at a lab bench and working on new, innovative technologies,” said May, a rising senior from Newport News, Virginia. “Research has given me the opportunity to put theory into practice, while also expressing my creativity through problem solving. Now, I have a better perspective of my future, including graduate school and career aspirations.”

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