Professor Elizabeth Young
Elizabeth Young, assistant professor of chemistry, and Sam Hendel '15 conduct an experimental set up for electrochemisty measurements.

The National Science Foundation has awarded Assistant Professor of Chemistry Elizabeth Young $200,000 to support research that may one day affect how we heat our homes and power our vehicles.

This is the second NSF grant that Young has received in the past two years. The first, a $399,900 award in 2014, funded the purchase and assembly of a transient absorption spectrometer—essentially a giant laser system—at Amherst College.

The new grant supports innovative research that the laser makes possible.

Having the spectrometer is “like having a sun that you can make into a stopwatch,” says Young. The laser provides a short flash of light—less than a millionth of a millionth of a second long—that stands in for sunlight. That flash starts a chemical reaction that scientists can then observe.

“This has implications in terms of renewable energy,” says Young. For instance, spectrometer-derived data can help scientists figure out how to “use light to put energy into certain kinds of molecules and materials and use them to power a device”—and to do so using less energy.

Young is also studying fundamental reactions that take advantage of proton-coupled electron transfer (PCET) mechanisms. One area in which PCET mechanisms are critical is in converting carbon dioxide into a fuel source. If scientists can use carbon dioxide to create fuels, she says, the result could be reduced carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. “The reactions we study can help scientists more efficiently carry out these kinds of chemical transformations,” she says.

The new grant includes funding for a technician who will help run the spectrometer and assist visiting researchers and Amherst students with their experiments.

“I have a student, John Strahan ’18,” says Young. “He can turn the laser on, set it up, take data, and analyze the data. Not every undergraduate has this opportunity, but those who have the time to commit to it have learned how.”

Other students will not run the instrument but will participate in experiments using the laser. “That’s okay,” says Young. “Just getting to see the instrument in action, using the data and analyzing the results is teaching them a lot.”

At large universities, most undergraduates who work in research labs are assigned the most rudimentary and repetitive tasks and are usually at least two steps away from the actual experiment. That’s why Young describes the spectrometer as providing “a very cool research opportunity” for Amherst College students. “I talked to several PIs [principal investigators] at big research schools this past year and they always say, “Whoa! You guys have this laser and your undergraduates are using it? That’s amazing!”