Charles C.L. McCrory’s career has always had a common theme: energy. He came to the University in Michigan in 2015 from the US Department of Energy’s Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis where he worked as a senior scientist for several years. Before that, during his post-doc at the California Institute of Technology he worked with a NSF Center for Chemical Innovation in Solar Fuels. And his Ph.D. work at Stanford focused on catalysts for fuel cell reactions as part of the Stanford Global Climate and Energy Project. McCrory’s current research continues this focus on studying catalytic mechanisms to design electrochemical catalysts relevant to energy and environmental chemistry.
An assistant professor of chemistry, McCrory is a new recipient of a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER award. The Faculty Early Career Development program offers five-year awards to support early-career faculty who exemplify leadership skills in both research and education. Selected once a year, the CAREER award is the most prestigious and competitive NSF award available for junior faculty.
McCrory aims to use the CAREER award specifically to develop carbon dioxide, CO2 reduction catalysts. CO2 is a common and unwanted industrial waste product and also a greenhouse gas. Solid-state electrochemical catalysts based on copper metal have been developed to reduce CO2 to valuable carbon products to mitigate the problem of excess CO2. However, a key problem with these solid-state catalysts is they produce multiple products at the same time.
Instead, McCrory uses molecular catalysts immobilized onto a surface which will produce only one product. And McCrory has a novel method to achieve this: look to nature. McCrory noticed that nature’s catalysts, enzymes, are model systems that are highly specialized based on the certain reactions they need to perform. “We wanted to do something like that. Take a catalyst that maybe isn’t so good for CO2 production and make it better, make it more selective and more active, by turning it into an enzyme-like structure,” McCrory explained. Along with a former post-doc, Dr. Wesley Kramer, they immobilized a transition metal complex into a polymer film. They found by varying the interactions of the complex with the polymer, both in close interactions and far range interactions, they could achieve enhancements in reaction rate and selectivity. McCrory hopes that by understanding the fundamentals of how these interactions affect the reaction, then he can create modular systems where catalyst and polymer are chosen for specific desired products.
McCrory will also use the CAREER award to bring his energy knowledge to the public. “There’s a lack of energy literacy in the public and it makes it really difficult to talk in a real way about energy policy,” he says. To combat this lack of energy literacy, McCrory has partnered with the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History to develop an exhibit about renewable energy and energy storage that shows the costs and benefits of the various options currently available. This exhibit is a lab-wide effort to design interactive projects that will eventually become part of a 500 sq. ft exhibit to engage and inform children and adults alike.
“Michigan has a lot of tools, a lot of instrumentation, and a lot of staff that make projects like this very possible,” McCrory explains. And from the lab to the public, McCrory is using everything the University of Michigan has to offer to make his CAREER grant work successful.