At age 34, Cornell University’s William R. Dichtel has already made a lasting impression on the world of organic chemistry and materials science. One highlight of his recent work involves covalent organic frameworks (COFs). COF-based semiconductors could someday be used in optoelectronic devices, which produce, detect, or control light. Potential examples include solar cells, transistors, or light-emitting diodes.
COFs, which form through self-assembly, consist of porous, two- or three-dimensional networks of organic compounds connected by covalent bonds. They are usually synthesized in the form of insoluble powders that can’t easily be fabricated into devices, Dichtel explains.
“Dichtel’s group is the first to grow COF thin films on transparent graphene electrodes,” says his Cornell colleague Bruce Ganem, the Franz & Elisabeth Roessler Professor of Chemistry. This advance is significant because graphene acts as a template that assembles COFs in ordered molecular networks. Attached to the graphene electrodes, these COFs could easily be incorporated into a variety of electronic devices, Dichtel notes.
“Will is a true pioneer in this area,” remarks Craig J. Hawker, director of the Materials Research Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “His work is incredibly creative and innovative, yet his methods have a simplicity that bodes well for applying them to many different problems.”
Dichtel, an assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology, is quick to note that his research success isn’t a solo act. “I am extremely proud of the undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral researchers who established my laboratory and are quickly becoming accomplished and confident young scientists in their own right,” he says in reaction to being named an early-career Arthur C. Cope Scholar. “The list of past awardees is truly impressive and includes three of my mentors and many scientific heroes. I am quite flattered to be included among them.”
It’s his leadership, drive, focus, and willingness to attack challenging problems that make his ideas and research methods notable, according to his colleagues. “His doctoral research and postdoctoral work yielded over 20 papers, typically in top journals, and gave Will a unique foundation of skills in molecular design, synthesis, and characterization that he is exploiting in new ways at Cornell,” says University of Montreal chemistry professor James D. Wuest, a pioneer in using directional bonding interactions to control the long-range order of materials.
Dichtel credits his passion for organic chemistry to his high school chemistry teacher, Jerry Maycock, a retired DuPont chemist, who gave up his free period to teach Dichtel organic chemistry. Dichtel went on to earn a B.S. in chemistry in 2000 from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he worked under organic chemistry professor Timothy M. Swager. Dichtel then earned a Ph.D. in chemistry in 2005 at UC Berkeley under the supervision of Jean M. J. Fréchet. After performing postdoctoral research in the labs of Fraser Stoddart and James R. Heath at UCLA and California Institute of Technology, respectively, he joined the Cornell faculty in 2008.