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Toledo Section of American Chemical Society celebrates 100th anniversary

The Toledo Local Section of the American Chemical Society will celebrate its 100th anniversary Thursday, April 27, with a talk by Barbara Floyd, interim director of University Libraries, on her book “The Glass City: Toledo and the Industry That Built It.”

The book talk, part of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library’s Open Book Program, will take place at 6 p.m. in McMaster Auditorium of the Toledo main library downtown.

Barbara Floyd will discuss her book, “The Glass City: Toledo and the Industry That Built It,” Thursday, April 27, at 6 p.m. in the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library McMaster Auditorium in downtown.

Floyd’s book, which chronicles the history of Toledo’s most important industry, was published by the University of Michigan Press. It was the winner of the Bowling Green State University’s Center for Archival Collection Local History Publication Award for the best book in the academic scholar category for 2015.

The Toledo Section of the American Chemical Society was founded by members of the UT Department of Chemistry faculty in 1917. The Toledo group is one of 187 local sections of the organization. The society’s mission is “to advance the broader chemistry enterprise and its practitioners for the benefit of Earth and its people.”

According to Joanna Hinton, past chair of the Toledo section, the group will hold events throughout the year in what it is calling its “Chem-tennial 2017.”

The talk at the library will include the presentation of awards to American Chemical Society members for their service.

Floyd, who is also director of the Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections, will sign copies of her book, which will be available for sale, after the talk.

For more information on the free, public talk, contact Hinton at 419.346.8876 or visit http://toledosection.sites.acs.org.

Bright work: UT research shines, sets low-bandgap perovskite solar cell world record for efficiency

With the depletion of nonrenewable energy sources and the increase of pollution, researchers have turned to finding ways to harness clean energy from cheap alternative sources.

Researchers at The University of Toledo have recently focused their investigation in the area of perovskite solar cell technology.

Dr. Yanfa Yan and his team make perovskite solar cells in the lab. Their research revealed a world record efficiency (low-bandgap) for the conversion of sunlight to electricity.

Perovskite is a compound material with a special crystal structure, according to Dr. Yanfa Yan, Ohio Research Scholar chair and UT professor of physics.

“Metal halide perovskites can effectively harvest sunlight and efficiently convert it into usable electrical power. They have the potential to be used for fabricating cheap and highly efficient solar cells,” he said. “Perovskite photovoltaic technology has attracted tremendous interest in the past several years.”

Current conventional solar cells are made out of materials such as silicon, a material more expensive than perovskite solar cells.

Yan explained that his research combined theoretical and experimental approaches to understand the fundamental mechanisms of the limitations of the perovskites and to develop processes and design new materials to overcome the limitations.

“Our ultimate goal is to help improve the energy conversion efficiencies of photovoltaic cells and solar fuel devices,” Yan said.

Dr. Yanfa Yan’s all-perovskite tandem solar cell combines two different solar cells to increase the total electrical power generated by using two different parts of the sun’s spectrum.

He and his team did just that. In fact, their research revealed a world record efficiency for the conversion of sunlight to electricity in the area of perovskite solar cell technology using less toxic lead as well as demonstrated a concept for producing an all-perovskite tandem solar cell that can bring together two different solar cells to increase the total electrical power generated by using two different parts of the sun’s spectrum.

“We reported a method that can easily be followed by other researchers in the field,” Yan said.

The research has been published in the journal Nature Energy.

“The publication of this paper in Nature Energy shows a significant recognition of our work by the peers in the field of photovoltaics,” Yan said. “We are very proud of our achievements.”

He added, “We are thankful for collaborations with colleagues in the Wright Center for Photovoltaics Innovation and Commercialization at UT.”

“Dr. Yan and his team are doing outstanding work on this promising type of solar cell, paving the way for cheaper and more efficient ways to provide clean renewable energy to meet the needs of society,” said Dr. Karen Bjorkman, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics; Distinguished University Professor of Astronomy; and Helen Luedtke Brooks Endowed Professor of Astronomy. “The faculty and researchers in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and UT’s Wright Center for Photovoltaic Innovation and Commercialization continue to lead the way in improving photovoltaic devices to address our growing energy demands through sustainable and renewable means.”

Patent approved for new spine testing device developed by UT bioengineer

A University of Toledo research professor received a patent for a new device designed to assist with fine-tuning spinal surgeries.

Manoj Kodigudla, research engineer in Dr. Vijay Goel's lab, made adjustments to the spine testing device in the lab.

Manoj Kodigudla, research engineer in Dr. Vijay Goel’s lab, made adjustments to the spine testing device in the lab.

Dr. Vijay Goel, professor of bioengineering and co-director of the Engineering Center for Orthopedic Research Excellence, said the Simplified Spine Testing Device standardizes the range-of-motion testing for pre- and post-surgical procedures.

“The device is used on cadaver samples in the lab to design the surgical process from start to finish,” Goel said. “This standardization greatly reduces the amount of time needed to test range of motion using CT scans and other imaging.”

The patent also was assigned to The University of Toledo, ATS Holdings LLC, the University of Kansas, Norman L. Carroll, Edward C. Cartwright, Robert J. Gephardt, Christopher L. Dixon and Elizabeth A. Friis. The Simplified Spine Testing Device has been licensed to Applied Testing Systems LLC for continued
development and commercialization.

Additionally, Goel and his colleagues Dr. Anand Agarwal and Dr. Sarit Bhaduri, UT professors of bioengineering, founded a spinal biological startup company called OsteoNovus. Goel and Agarwal also founded Spinal Balance, and co-developed other medical devices, including the Libra Pedicle Screw System. The pre-sterilized, individually packaged screw system was designed to reduce the risk of surgical infection for spine surgery patients.

UT doctoral student honored for identifying how climate change threatens food quality

A doctoral student at The University of Toledo recently won an award from the Ecological Society of America for his study that shows why the combination of high carbon dioxide levels in the air and chronic global warming will contribute to a decrease in crop production and food quality during the next few decades.

Jayawardena

Jayawardena

“We have provided a better understanding of what scientists need to do to improve the heat tolerance of crops in the future,” said Dileepa Jayawardena, a PhD student in the Department of Environmental Sciences, who conducted the climate change study as a project for his master’s degree. “They can use this information to generate new climate-change-tolerant crops to help feed the growing human population.”

Using tomato as a model, Jayawardena investigated the way plants absorb nitrogen fertilizer from the soil.

Over the course of 18 days inside controlled growth chambers in Bowman-Oddy Laboratories, the plants were subjected to conditions that mimic future climate by Jayawardena’s team.

Individually, elevated carbon dioxide and warming did not have large effects on tomato responses.

However, when combined, researchers saw a large decrease in the uptake rate of soil nitrate and ammonium through the roots. At the same time, researchers saw a significant drop in the concentration and function of the proteins that roots use to acquire soil nitrogen. The result was a crop with lower nitrogen levels and thus lower nutritional value.

Dileepa Jayawardena grew tomato in a controlled environment to mimic future climate change and assessed the plants’ growth.

Dileepa Jayawardena grew tomato in a controlled environment to mimic future climate change and assessed the plants’ growth.

Jayawardena’s work also shows that the combination of heat and carbon dioxide is bad for the plant in terms of being able to convert inorganic nitrogen, like nitrate and ammonium, into organic form, like protein, which is the form of nitrogen that humans require.

“If climate change intensifies, this impact on plant nitrogen concentration means that plants will not grow as big in the future, and they will be poorer-quality food for people and other animals that eat plants,” he said.

Jayawardena won the New Phytologist Poster Award for his presentation at the Ecological Society of America annual meeting last month in Florida. It is the nation’s largest organization of professional ecologists with a membership of more than 10,000 scientists.

“By itself, increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels tend to increase plant growth, which is a positive,” said Dr. Scott Heckathorn, UT ecology professor and Jayawardena’s faculty advisor. “However, increasing carbon dioxide is the primary cause of current global warming, which will increase heat stress for much life on the planet. The question then arises as to whether benefits of elevated carbon dioxide will offset the negative effects of increasing heat stress. What is new about Dileepa’s work is that it provides a mechanism for why the combination of elevated carbon dioxide and heat is detrimental.”

The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Photography book frames Toledo’s past to highlight present

Guts — that’s what Ben Morales needed to get some of the photos for Hindsight: Northwest Ohio Through the Lens of Time.

There’s a shot of the Glass City’s iconic Anthony Wayne Bridge.

Hindsight-cover“Traffic never seems to slow on that bridge, and I had to walk out to the median. There really isn’t a place to stand; I had to straddle the cement median as traffic was whizzing by close to me,” he recalled.

And the Capital Tire & Rubber Co. building at the corner of Cherry Street and Spielbusch Avenue in downtown Toledo.

“I tried several times to get the photo, but I could never bring myself to walk out into the intersection because there was always traffic. And finally on my fourth or fifth attempt, I just went out and had some cars honking at me, and it was quite terrifying. And when I was leaving the intersection, I dropped my keys, so I had to run out there again and get them. 

“It literally only took me 10 seconds to get the shot. It probably took me 10 minutes to get the courage to walk out there,” Morales said and laughed.

He waded into the cold, rushing Maumee River for a photo of Roche de Boeuf and Interurban Bridge in Waterville. 

UT’s University Hall is one of nearly 100 locations featured in Ben Morales’ "Hindsight: Northwest Ohio Through the Lens of Time."

UT’s University Hall is one of nearly 100 locations featured in Ben Morales’ “Hindsight: Northwest Ohio Through the Lens of Time.”

“Thankfully, my friend loaned me waders,” Morales said. “I needed to go into the river for the correct alignment for that shot.”

Perspective is critical for Hindsight, which features historical black-and-white photos that Morales held and lined up in front of the same locations to take new seamless shots that meld time.

It all started four years ago when the graphic designer was working at a local ad agency and was looking for inspiration for the “You Are Here Toledo” project. He searched for an old photo of the Washington Street Bridge.

“I found a really nice old shot of the bridge and, along with that, I found a lot of old shots of the Toledo area that I’d never seen before,” Morales said. “I was just kind of amazed by the richness of Toledo’s history and how interesting it looks and how different it looks, but at the same time, we could still see a glimpse of that today that I hadn’t really taken notice of until then.”

Something compelled him to print out a couple of the black-and-white shots. He cut out the images of the former Key Bank on Madison Avenue and a shot looking down Madison and tucked them into his pocket. 

Mancy's Steakhouse on Phillips Avenue

Mancy’s Steakhouse on Phillips Avenue

“On my lunch break, I was just walking around downtown and thought it would be cool to go to the actual locations and compare and contrast — look at the photo compared to how it looked in real life,” he said. “So I took the opportunity to walk to those locations and do my best to line them up, and I took my first shots with my old iPhone 4.”

Then he posted the photo of the old-timey snapshot framed in the present on Instagram.

“The photos got a really resounding response, and people suggested more locations,” Morales said. “I thought it would be interesting to try to see if I could find more of these photos and continue it as a series.”

Arjun Sabharwal, associate professor and digital initiatives librarian in Carlson Library, was a fan of Morales’ work on Toledo Rephotography on Instagram at #toledorephotography.

Morales book signing box“What is particularly compelling is how Ben’s work combines new technology with history,” Sabharwal said. “The time, effort and imagination lends his book seriousness, credibility and originality.”

A history buff who helps manage Toledo’s Attic website, Sabharwal recalled three years ago when northwest Ohio’s virtual museum invited the public to contribute Instagram shots tagged #toledosattic: “By the time the contributions exceeded 2,000 images, the experiment had morphed into a publicly curated exhibition representing local history through the public eye. Ben’s work was truly a gem from the outset.”

He mentioned Morales’ cool project to Barbara Floyd, interim director of University Libraries and director of the UT Press.

Toledo, Lake Erie and Western Railroad Bridge over the Maumee River

Toledo, Lake Erie and Western Railroad Bridge over the Maumee River

“I felt that Ben’s photography was so original in concept that it deserved a larger audience,” Floyd, director of the Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections, said. “And because his work is focused on images from northwest Ohio, it seemed like a perfect fit with the mission of the UT Press. We have found that photography books featuring local images are very popular, such as the book of photographs of rock and blues stars performing in Toledo taken by John Rockwood that we published last year.”

Floyd added, “I love the way you can almost walk into history through Ben’s photos.”

Photos and historical information on The University of Toledo, Ohio Theatre, Toledo Zoo, Holy Rosary Cathedral, Oliver House, Toledo Museum of Art, Side Cut Metropark, and other landmarks are included in the 145-page book.

“The Valentine Theatre, particularly with Houdini hanging from the top of the façade, is probably my favorite photo because I love Houdini and it fascinates me that he was even in Toledo let alone hanging by a chain with a straitjacket on,” Morales said.

That stunning shot also is a favorite of Yarko Kuk, managing editor of the UT Press, who helped track down historical information included in the book and arranged access for Morales to take some photos.

“Ben went to great lengths to create thoughtful then and now photographs,” Kuk said. “We really tried to capture the sense of a bygone era and the history that surrounds us.”

“There’s just something about old photos — there’s just sort of a haunting beauty behind them,” Morales mused.

Hindsight: Northwest Ohio Through the Lens of Time is $39.95 and available online at utoledopress.com, as well as at Rockets Bookstore, 3047 W. Bancroft St., and Gathering Volumes, 196 E. South Boundary St., Perrysburg.

“The past is all around us, but we don’t always notice it because it is often tucked away in between modern structures, and it may not be quite as visible as it once was,” Morales said. “I want people to be able to see, notice and appreciate the beauty of the past and take ownership of it.”

UT researchers receive funding to study link between kidney disorder and cardiovascular disease

Researchers at The University of Toledo are examining how a genetic kidney disorder also increases the person’s risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Dr. Wissam AbouAlaiwi, assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, received a three-year, $231,000 Scientist Development Grant, and doctoral student Hannah Saternos received a $2,000 award from the American Heart Association to study the pathophysiology of cardiovascular disease in polycystic kidney disease (PKD).

Dr. Wissam AbouAlaiwi and doctoral student Hannah Saternos both received grants for their research examining how a genetic kidney disorder increases a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Dr. Wissam AbouAlaiwi and doctoral student Hannah Saternos both received grants for their research examining how a genetic kidney disorder increases a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

PKD is a genetic disorder that causes numerous fluid-filled cysts to grow in the kidneys, ultimately destroying their architecture and reducing their function over time. These cysts also are associated with the development of high blood pressure and problems with the heart and blood vessels in the brain.

“There is currently no cure or treatment for PKD. A kidney transplant can buy an individual more time, but patients with PKD will still usually die from cardiovascular complications such as high blood pressure and heart disease,” AbouAlaiwi said.

AbouAlaiwi and his team are studying a cellular organelle called primary cilia and its role in kidney and cardiovascular disease.

“Primary cilia are antenna-like structures that, until recently, were believed to have no function in the body. We now know they contribute to dozens of genetic disorders and play a role in calcium signaling in heart cells, which is important to its contraction,” he said. “We have developed mouse models to further study these cilia and the complications that arise from their dysfunction.”

This is the third grant for AbouAlaiwi’s lab in one year, and he is quick to credit his team of students for their hard work and dedication.

“The students are very reliable and passionate and the driving force behind the research,” he said. “Funding for research is very competitive, and I am proud that Hannah was able to receive support from the American Heart Association. She is very talented, smart and dedicated to her work. The award is well-deserved.”

Saternos is researching the function of a family of receptors that she recently discovered in the primary cilia and how it affects PKD and regulates blood pressure.

“If you would have told me four years ago I would be working with the kidney and loving it, I would have thought you were crazy,” she said. “It’s fascinating. I don’t think people realize how much impact the kidney has on the rest of the body.”

Researchers awarded grant to study how to increase diversity in engineering workforce

The National Science Foundation awarded $123,859 to a team of researchers at The University of Toledo to study the factors affecting the success and career choices of underrepresented minority engineering students.

The two-year project will compare factors at UT and Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University.

Business Hlogo 1c BlackThe study will focus on the attitudes and beliefs of faculty and staff, existing institutional support mechanisms, and the role of student organizations. The research will examine the effects these have on the social and academic integration of African-American students.

“The broader impact of this project is that it addresses the national need to diversify the engineering workforce,” said Dr. Lesley Berhan, the project’s principal investigator and associate professor in the Department of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering. “The results will be used to identify areas where existing practices might be improved and to inform the design of programs and intervention strategies to improve the success of underrepresented engineering students not only at our home institutions, but at institutions across the country.”

Berhan will work with Dr. Revathy Kumar, professor of educational psychology, and Dr. Willie McKether, vice president for diversity and inclusion, on the project titled “Factors Affecting Underrepresented Minority Student Success and Pathways to Engineering Careers at Majority and Minority Institutions.”

According to the National Science Foundation project summary, “While inadequate college preparation is a contributing factor in the low enrollment and poor retention and graduation rates among underrepresented students in engineering programs, there is evidence that professional persistence is directly linked to identity development and social and academic interactions.”

“Once again, The University of Toledo is on the forefront of cross-cutting, long-term research that will determine our economic destiny,” Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur said. “It’s important for future generations and our economic standing to understand and develop the means to maximize opportunity for all of our citizens to contribute to their best God-given abilities. This research aims to do that.”

UT grad student trying to save rare songbird wins award at international conference

When golden-winged warblers and their sweet, buzzy voices take flight on the long journey south wearing what look like miniature backpacks, Gunnar Kramer worries how many will return in the spring.

“These birds are very uncommon and have been declining severely in some parts of their range for more than 50 years — more than most other species of birds in North America,” Kramer said. “To help preserve them, we are learning exactly where they go for the winter and how they get there.”

Gunnar Kramer held a golden-winged warbler, which carried a geolocator. Researchers attached the tiny backpack to the bird in 2015 and recovered it in 2016. The data on the geolocator will help Kramer understand the warbler’s migratory route and winter location.

Gunnar Kramer held a golden-winged warbler, which carried a geolocator. Researchers attached the tiny backpack to the bird in 2015 and recovered it in 2016. The data on the geolocator will help Kramer understand the warbler’s migratory route and winter location.

Kramer, a Minnesota-native who studies birds as a PhD student at The University of Toledo, uses cutting-edge technology to identify migration routes the tiny birds take once they leave their spring and summer nesting grounds.

The songbirds, which are about the size of a pingpong ball and weigh less than three pennies, travel thousands of miles, and Kramer is mapping their journey using what are called light-level geolocators.

“Golden-winged warblers breed throughout the Great Lakes region and the Appalachian Mountains,” Kramer said. “We know they spend the winter somewhere in Central and South America. However, nothing is known about where specific populations settle down.”

The graduate student in the Department of Environmental Sciences recently was honored for a talk he gave at the North American Ornithological Conference in Washington, D.C., about his pioneering research on the silvery gray birds with yellow-crowned heads that are under consideration for federal endangered species protection.

The American Ornithologists’ Union awarded Kramer the Council Student Presentation Award at the gathering of 2,000 birding professionals from all over the world.

This geolocator was recovered from a golden-winged warbler after a full year of recording data. The bird carried this unit for more than 5,000 miles.

This geolocator was recovered from a golden-winged warbler after a full year of recording data. The bird carried this unit for more than 5,000 miles.

“The goal is to help improve conservation efforts to boost their numbers,” Kramer said. “If we can figure out golden-winged warblers, we can help the other species make a comeback.”

Kramer and Dr. Henry Streby, UT assistant professor and ornithologist, have been looping tiny backpacks around the legs of these birds for three years.

Figure-eight harnesses secure the backpack, which contains a battery, a computer chip and a light sensor. The whole thing weighs less than half of a paper clip and does not inhibit flight or movement.

“We were the first people to put this type of technology on a bird this small,” Streby said. “We developed the tiniest methods for the tiniest birds, and now we’re helping people do the same thing with many other species.”

“The light sensor records ambient light and stores it with a time stamp on the unit every couple minutes,” Kramer said. “We are using differences in day length to predict daily location of the birds throughout the year. Based on how long the day and night are, you can tell approximately where you are on the planet.”

A golden-winged warbler carrying a geolocator in Minnesota.

A golden-winged warbler carrying a geolocator in Minnesota.

So far, more than 100 light level geolocators have been recovered from birds who made the return journey to various locations up north.

Though the research is not complete, preliminary results show golden-winged warblers from declining populations spend their winters in South America on the border of Venezuela and Columbia. The stable population of the species who breed in Minnesota spend the winter spread out through Central America from southern Mexico down to Panama.

“There might not be anything we may be able to do up here on the breeding grounds to help preserve this species of warbler if the limiting factors for these populations are on the wintering grounds,” Streby said. “Factors like loss of habitat or human disturbance might be influencing the populations in the wintering grounds to a different effect. Countries have different conservation policies. There are countries that can afford to take care of bird habitat and those that cannot. We have a responsibility to help them.”

These UT researchers are collaborating with scientists from various universities, including the University of Tennessee, the University of Minnesota and West Virginia University.

Funding is provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Science Foundation.

Click here to watch a video showing how the geolocators are put on the birds.

UT researchers test new experimental drug to treat diabetes and increase bone mass

Researchers from The University of Toledo, in collaboration with chemists from the Scripps Research Institute, have discovered a compound that normalizes glucose levels while increasing the mass and quality of bone.

Body processes that regulate energy metabolism and bone mass are closely intertwined, and numerous studies have shown individuals with Type 2 diabetes are at increased risk for bone fractures. Additionally, some current anti-diabetic drugs work well to regulate insulin levels, but can cause further bone damage.

Dr. Beata Lecka-Czernik, right, posed for a photo with her team, from left, Shermel Sherman, Faiz Tausif, Amit Chougule, Lance Stechschulte, Matthew Mazur, Zachary Rotter and Ali Eltatawy.

Dr. Beata Lecka-Czernik, right, posed for a photo with her team, from left, Shermel Sherman, Faiz Tausif, Amit Chougule, Lance Stechschulte, Matthew Mazur, Zachary Rotter and Ali Eltatawy.

“Our data demonstrate the regulation of bone mass and energy metabolism share similar mechanisms,” said Dr. Beata Lecka-Czernik, professor in UT’s departments of Orthopaedic Surgery and Physiology and Pharmacology, and a member of the faculty in the Center for Diabetes and Endocrine Research. “This suggests a new pharmacologic agent could be developed to treat both diabetes and metabolic bone diseases.”

Targeting PPARγ, the protein in the body that regulates energy use and bone cell differentiation and function, Dr. Patrick Griffin and researchers from the Scripps Research Institute developed a series of new insulin sensitizers.

“Our multidisciplinary chemical biology team at Scripps Florida had spent many years developing precise structure activity relationships around many chemical scaffolds that alter the shape and behavior of PPARγ,” Griffin said. “These efforts were then combined with the bone biology expertise of Dr. Lecka-Czernik to explore whether we have compounds that maintain excellent insulin sensitization efficacy but are positive on bone health.”

Lecka-Czernik and her team at UT then tested these compounds for bone safety.

“During the course of our experiments, we discovered that a compound called SR10171 normalizes glucose levels in Type 2 diabetes, prevents associated weight gain, and increases the mass and quality of bone,” she said. “Remarkably, this experimental drug also maintains its positive effect on bone in non-diabetic conditions and acts as insulin sensitizer only on demand when normal glucose and insulin becomes imbalanced.”

SR10171 supports bone formation by directly regulating bone cells that work together to break down, build and protect bone.

The results also suggest the bone remodeling properties of this compound could be used to treat osteoporosis, Lecka-Czernik said.

The team’s findings, “PPARG Post-Translational Modifications Regulate Bone Formation and Bone Resorption,” was published in the August issue of EBioMedicine. This team science was funded in part on a collaborative grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

UT engineer’s catalysis research published in Science

New research published in the journal Science could provide an economic solution to technologies that require scarce and expensive precious metals.

Dr. Ana C. Alba-Rubio, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, was part of a research team that proved that it is possible to get the same chemical reaction with much less of the precious metal when using it as a thin coating over a transition metal carbide. Technologies such as fuel cells and catalytic converters require these types of precious metals.

A sample of a core-shell nanoparticle made by the researchers is shown in images made using scanning tunneling electron microscope and energy-dispersive x-ray spectroscopy. Color images show where the different elements are located in the particle, with the precious metals platinum and ruthenium concentrated in the shell, and the other constituents, tungsten, and titanium, concentrated in the core.

A catalyst made by the researchers is shown here with images from a scanning tunneling electron microscope and energy-dispersive x-ray spectroscopy showing the different elements platinum, ruthenium, tungsten and titanium.

“One of the primarily materials used for these types of chemical reactions called catalysts is platinum, which is very expensive and not widely available,” Alba-Rubio said. “Research has been underway for some time for alternatives, but there had been a lot of trial and error in the process to find something that works.”

One of the challenges in combining a precious metal with another material is that it can be difficult to bond and also can mix with other metals and become unstable over time. The researchers succeeded with the use of carbides, which are resistant to corrosion, possess electrical conductivity, and cannot alloy with the precious metals. The developed synthesis method also prevents the catalysts from sintering and coking, which are two modes of deactivation.

Alba-Rubio’s role in the research was the characterization of the materials with a high-resolution electron microscope.

“With the microscope, we were able to see what was happening,” she said. “It helped us to not only study the synthesis progress, but also the stability of the materials.”

The project was a collaboration with Dr. Sean T. Hunt, Dr. Maria Milina, Dr. Christopher H. Hendon and Dr. Yuriy Román-Leshkov at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Alba-Rubio was part of the research team while conducting her postdoctoral research with Dr. James A. Dumesic at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before joining UT in August 2015.

Read the article online at science.sciencemag.org.