The materials with which Dr. Mary (Beth) Anderson’s research team works are too small to see, but the Hope College chemistry professor sees a big future for them.

Anderson, an assistant professor and Towsley Research Scholar, and the Hope students in her research group are investigating nanoscale thin films composed of metal-organic frameworks (MOFs).

She has been investigating the properties and formation of the films for the past several years, working collaboratively with Hope students since joining the faculty in 2010.  Already the recipient of external support for her work, she recently received a three-year, $209,000 grant from the National Science Foundation that will help her and the students continue to refine their understanding of the films and support the group in developing applications related to chemical sensing and solar energy.

“MOFs are crystalline, porous materials with extremely high surface areas that exhibit great potential for catalysis, gas storage and drug delivery. The incorporation of MOF thin films directly within device architectures presents an exciting opportunity to employ the functionality of the material,” Anderson said.  “Research is ongoing to investigate how to incorporate these films on a variety of technologically-relevant materials, such as flexible plastics and transparent electrodes.”

From the reference of day-to-day experience, “thin” might seem like something of an understatement:  the films are typically less than 1/1,000th the width of a human hair.  The miniature size is a large part of their utility.

“Smart interfaces incorporating metal-organic coordinated nanomaterials can be assembled from the bottom-up with structure and composition tailored on the molecular level,” she said.  “Specifically, thin films of metal-organic frameworks present the ability to integrate the versatility and great potential of MOF systems directly onto or into device architectures, sensor platforms, or other test-beds designed for specific applications.”

The grant provides funds for a robotic tool that will automate the creation of the thin films.  The instrument has already arrived and Anderson’s group is optimizing the process.  “The students are excited that the robot will increase productivity because it will take over this routine fabrication process so that they can focus on data collection and analysis,” Anderson said.

The NSF grant is Anderson’s second external research award in as many years.  In 2014, she received a two-year grant from the American Chemical Society (ACS) Petroleum Research Fund that she and her student researchers are using to study the films with an emphasis on their potential application in industrial processes like the refining of gasoline.  That research has led to the publication of an article in the current issue of the ACS research journal “Langmuir” co-authored by Anderson and two of her current and former student collaborators, senior Monica Ohnsorg and 2014 graduate Christopher Beaudoin, and she noted that the promising results informed the successful NSF grant proposal.

The research avenue was made possible in the first place through a major instrumentation award that Anderson and Dr. Jennifer Hampton, associate professor of physics, received from the NSF in 2011 for an atomic force microscope that is essential for studying the films, which are otherwise too small to be observed.  As one of the college’s Towsley Research Scholars since 2013, Anderson is also receiving ongoing support from Hope for her research.