Department of Chemistry Profile

Professor Luis Smith

A childhood fascination with the space program and science fiction TV shows eventually led to a career studying solid-state chemistry for Professor Luis Smith.

What is your area of specialization in chemistry?

I'm interested in solid-state chemistry—the chemistry of solids, as opposed to liquids or gases. I wanted to study the synthesis and structure of solid materials.

As an undergrad I'd worked for a theoretical chemist focusing on solid-state chemistry. I decided to continue with that, and began to focus more specifically on non-carbon based materials—what's called inorganic chemistry—and learning Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy as well. I combine what would traditionally be called inorganic with physical chemistry and looking at the interface of the two, and characterize inorganic materials, as opposed to exclusively synthesizing them or exclusively developing techniques to characterize them.

What is physical chemistry, and what do you mean by characterization?

Physical chemistry is a branch of chemistry that studies the physical basis for chemical reactions and the properties of chemical substances.

Characterization refers to measuring the properties of materials and determining their structures. Quite literally, where the atoms are located in relationship to one another, and, by extension, how that arrangement affects the properties of the materials that one observes.

What does NMR spectroscopy allow you to do?

Using scanning electron, high-resolution transmission electron or atomic force microscopy, we're able to see atoms on the surface of a material, but not in the interior. That's why we turn to technologies like NMR spectroscopy that can "look" both at the surface and the interior of the sample. In our research we're trying to focus on both, because we study mesoporous materials in which the surface is often partially hidden.

What projects are currently going on in your lab?

There are two main projects right now. We're studying how the structure and composition of mesoporous materials affects their properties. We make niobium oxide versions of these materials and try to characterize the niobium environment using NMR spectroscopy. We also produce a lot of regular crystalline materials that contain niobium to get an idea of what different structures are available to niobium in oxide environments, and how those structures look to our NMR spectroscopy. These crystalline materials are a sort of roadmap to the less well-understood mesoporous materials.

In the second project we're investigating the use of polymer electrolyte materials in batteries. A battery contains two electrodes that are connected by a wire to the equipment being powered. But the electrodes also have to be connected with something else to complete the circuit. A normal commercial battery contains liquid that allows the circuit to be completed. For example, in a lithium battery, the liquid allows the lithium to move between the two electrodes and complete the circuit. But the problem with liquid-filled batteries is that they can leak and catch fire. If that liquid could be replaced with a solid material, those problems would go away.

We're trying to create solid materials that allow lithium to pass through them. Mesoporous materials with their channel structure might be a possibility. We can create these materials and NMR allows us to measure how fast the lithium is moving through the material.

This is a big field, and we're capitalizing on our work with mesoporous materials as potential hosts for lithium motion. For this project we're using silicon dioxide. We're characterizing it to make sure it has the required structure, and creating the material here in the lab because it's not commercially available.

What opportunities for research involvement in chemistry are available to undergrads?

The biggest opportunity is to link up with a faculty member and work in his or her research group, and to play a part in collecting and analyzing data. That's usually the best way.

There are many opportunities available, and every research group has something an undergrad can do. Depending on the group, there are different levels of work that a student can do, depending on his or her expertise and interests. In my group, a lot of students synthesize materials and do basic characterization. That's usually the easiest thing, given time and experience. It doesn't require them to be there every day of the week, but they can still do something novel and in some cases publishable. We already have one student in my group who has been an author on a publication. It's typical of the chemistry department to have lots of undergrad authors, because they're usually involved in actual research that's going to get published.