posted May 18, 2011

NSF Grant Supports Research into Properties of New Metal Alloys

A grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) is supporting a Hope College physicist's research into creating new types of metal alloys and how they might become a more efficient part of other processes, including potentially the production of alternate fuels.

Dr. Jennifer Hampton and her student research team will create distinctive alloys by using electroplating to combine multiple metals including nickel, iron, cobalt, copper and zinc, and then selectively removing one or more of the components.  She anticipates that the resulting structures will be different than if they had never had the material added in the first place, and could well have an effect when used in other processes.

"The new piece is that we'll be creating particular combinations of materials that might have interesting implications for catalyzing other reactions - particularly reactions that could be interesting for the nation's energy needs," said Hampton, an assistant professor of physics.

She and the students will use the alloys they produce in two already-established processes related to alternate-fuel production:  creating hydrogen gas from water, and oxidizing methanol as a fuel.  Ultimately, Hampton hopes that her research will help uncover ways to create alloys that help make such processes more efficient and thus more cost-effective.

"They're model reactions for a broader class of reactions," Hampton said.  "The idea is to add to the growing research into the materials that could help with future energy applications."

Hampton's project is titled "Microstructuring and Catalytic Behavior of Electrodeposited Nanoporous Alloys."  The metals are nanoporous because they are not smooth but instead marked by micro or nanoscopic pores that mean that they present a larger surface area when involved in reactions.  Hampton is especially interested in understanding how the alloy combinations and the metals' nanoporous nature will interrelate.

The NSF has supported the work with a three-year, $134,626 award.  The grant goes into effect June 1 and continues through May of 2014.

Students will work on the project with her full-time during the summer and part-time during the academic year.  A total of three will be working with her this summer, including two from Hope and another from Rhodes College.  The college's program of summer collaborative research consistently includes students from Hope as well as from other colleges and universities and also area high schools.

Hampton has been a member of the Hope faculty since 2007.  She had previously taught physics at Washington and Jefferson College for two years, prior to which she had conducted postdoctoral research at The Pennsylvania State University.  She completed her doctorate in physics with a minor in chemistry at Cornell University in 2002 and a Master of Philosophy degree at the University of Cambridge in 1996, and graduated from Oberlin College in 1995.