Olivier nanoscale research

Starting out very, very small

By Deserae E. del Campo

Starting out very, very small

By Deserae E. del Campo
NSF CAREER grant will help fund chemical nanoscience research for solar energy improvements

To explain the science of manipulating molecules on a nanoscale, Jean-Hubert Olivier, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, likes us to imagine that molecules are LEGO pieces, those small, plastic construction toys kids have been playing with for nearly a century.

“You can take the LEGOs and, piece by piece, build a castle. But if I take a bag of LEGOs and throw them on the ground, I have a scattered mess,” Olivier said. “What chemists like me are pioneering are reliable tools that manipulate those LEGO pieces so when we throw that same bag of LEGOs, we don’t get a scattered mess. We spontaneously form a castle.”

It would, however, be an infinitesimally small castle because Olivier investigates and manipulates nanoscale organic materials made of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen on the nanoscale. Such materials are one-billionth of a meter—so tiny that a million nanometers would fit on the head of a pin. 

But Olivier, who was recently awarded the prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER grant of $650,000 over five years, isn’t looking for tools that will manipulate molecules so they reassemble into castles. He’s laying down the molecular technology to, in essence, teach organic materials to organize into pre-programmed shapes and interact with light in the most efficient way possible.

It’s as if Olivier is changing the molecular makeup of each individual LEGO piece to reconstruct a new kind of LEGO from the inception. “If we can do that, then we open new avenues to optimize solar energy capture and conversion and that’s a big deal,” said Olivier.

“We’re not talking about engineering solar cells,” he added. “My work looks at the steps before that can even happen by focusing on establishing innovative tools to precisely control the interaction between molecules and manipulating the materials at the nanoscale. The end goal is far-reaching and expands beyond solar energy capture and conversion.”

In addition to his light-harvesting application, Olivier aims to develop soft, bendable materials that, down the road, could be used for quantum computing, for example. Because researchers cannot see molecules with their eyes, they rely on analytical techniques to see what molecules are actually doing. His lab group in the Cox Science Building uses electrochemistry techniques to probe the electronic properties of the molecules as well as spectroscopy to see how light interacts with new material conformation.

“In essence, light and electrochemistry are our eyes, and if we know where and how to look, we can truly understand how molecules interact at the nanoscale level,” Olivier said.

In addition to advancing his research, Olivier will use his CAREER grant, which supports early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models and leaders in research and education, to launch a Science Discovery Program for middle and high school students. His idea is to introduce young minds to the world of molecular chemistry. He is partnering with the Johnson & Johnson 3D Printing Center of Excellence Collaborative Laboratory in the School of Engineering, where students can create and build their own 3D molecules.

“This is far from a one-man show,” Oliver said. “I have tremendous support from UM to create the program. The idea is to build and expand this program over the next five years and integrate the community by exposing young minds to chemistry, which is a pivotal science that can help shape a better word. It is our mission to make people realize the challenges we are facing as a modern society, and the development of pedagogical platforms plays a cardinal role in sharing that information with the community.”