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The Tide Rises for Alabama Chemistry

New research facilities and federal funding boost research in the chemical sciences

by Stephen K. Ritter
June 7, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 23

Arduengo (from left), Dixon, and Thrasher pose in front of Alabama's Shelby Hall.
Arduengo (from left), Dixon, and Thrasher pose in front of Alabama's Shelby Hall.

The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, formally dedicated a new 220,000-sq-ft interdisciplinary transportation and science complex on May 14. The $60 million building, named Shelby Hall, is the centerpiece of several recent developments that are enhancing chemistry and chemistry-related research at the university.

The pentagon-shaped building is composed of five joined sections with a central courtyard and is among the largest applied-science facilities in the Southeast, according to the university. Shelby Hall will be the new home for the university's chemistry department and will significantly boost its research capabilities, notes chemistry professor and department chair Joseph S. Thrasher. Shelby Hall also will house university research coalitions and centers in transportation, geosciences, energy, materials science, and environmental studies.

Shelby Hall is named after Alabama alumni Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) and his wife, Annette N. Shelby, a retired business professor. Shelby is chairman of the Transportation Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. More than half of the funding for the building came from federal transportation research dollars.

The chemistry department plans to complete its move into Shelby Hall over the summer, Thrasher says. With the move, the department will gain offices and lab space, and it has just added five new faculty members. The department also will be upgrading several existing nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers and adding a new 600-MHz instrument, he notes. It also has ordered $500,000 worth of additional electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy equipment.

"WITH THIS INSTALLATION, we join the ranks of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State in terms of EPR capabilities," Thrasher points out. Both the NMR and EPR upgrades are being supported with National Science Foundation grants.

One of the research focus areas slated for Shelby Hall is fuel-cell technology and hydrogen storage. Thrasher is working with Alabama chemistry professors Anthony J. Arduengo III and David A. Dixon to head up the university's part of a new Department of Energy Virtual Center for Chemical Hydrogen Storage. The center is a collaborative effort among Los Alamos National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and several universities and companies. It is, in turn, part of a recently announced $350 million DOE funding package for hydrogen research projects. The Alabama chemistry department expects to receive $1.25 million in funding over five years as part of the project.

The Alabama chemists will be working on novel chemical systems for hydrogen storage, heat-transfer fluids, and computational chemistry to guide the design of optimal storage materials. Arduengo will lead the effort to prepare hypervalent polyhydrides containing boron, silicon, sulfur, or phosphorus that can take up and release hydrogen on demand. Other compounds to be studied include cyanocarbons, which are electron-deficient materials that are easily reduced by hydrogen, he says. Their high oxidation potentials and other unique properties make them excellent candidates for incorporation into hydrogen storage systems, Arduengo notes.

Thrasher will lead work on developing fluorocarbon liquids to manage heat exchange during hydrogen uptake and release from the chemical storage systems. Dixon will direct high-level ab initio electronic structure calculations to study the energetics of hydrogen storage systems and to design molecules that provide maximum storage capacity.

Another chemistry-related research center to benefit from Shelby Hall is the Center for Green Manufacturing (CGM). The center facilitates interdisciplinary R&D of green technologies that reduce or prevent pollution and hazardous substances in manufacturing while remaining economically viable, according to the center's director, chemistry professor Robin D. Rogers. CGM is currently housed in a two-year-old facility as part of the Alabama Institute for Manufacturing Excellence. CGM will be moving its basic science functions to Shelby Hall, while its applied R&D functions will remain in the current facility.

One of Shelby Hall's other new occupants will be the university's Center for Materials for Information Technology, or MINT Center. This center focuses on developing new materials for advanced data storage. Another occupant will be the Coalition for Biomolecular Products, an alliance of research groups from chemistry, chemical engineering, biological sciences, and nutrition with a goal to identify new macromolecules and find commercial applications for them.

"Our new facilities and our new administrative leadership team have positioned us to make bold new moves forward in chemistry research, education, and outreach," Rogers says. "It's now our job as faculty to take advantage of this infrastructure to provide our students with world-class opportunities."



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