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Small Particles, Big Findings

Dr. Anatoly Frenkel Receives Recognition in Science Magazine, Three Grants to Study Energy

Sometimes big change comes from small beginnings. That’s especially true in the research of Dr. Anatoly Frenkel, professor of physics at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, whose work seeks to reinvent the way we use and produce energy by unlocking the potential of some of the world’s tiniest structures: nanoparticles.

Anatoly Frenkel Stern College's Dr. Anatoly Frenkel has recently received more than $1 million in various grants to study energy.

“The nanoparticle is the smallest unit in most novel materials, and all of its properties are linked in one way or another to its structure,” said Frenkel. “If we can understand that connection, we can derive much more information about how it can be used for catalysis, energy and other purposes.”

That is the focus of three new grants Frenkel has recently been awarded.

The first, “Testing the Predictive Power of Theory for Determining the Structure and Activity of Nanoparticle Electrocatalysts,” is a $600,000, three-year grant from the United States Department of Energy, in partnership with the University of Texas at Austin. Frenkel and co-principal investigators Dr. Richard M. Crooks, the Robert A. Welch Chair in Materials Chemistry at UT, and Dr. Graeme Henkelman, associate professor at UT, will seek to determine the three-dimensional structure of nanoparticles. “My colleagues at UT have developed a new method of synthesis to create well-defined particles that are stable and can be used as a gold standard to study the architecture of nanoparticle systems,” Frenkel said. “I will bring my expertise to the table to study everything from how the atoms are arranged in the particle to what roles their patterns play in their catalytic activity.”

“Correlative Microscopy, Spectroscopy and Diffraction with a Micro-Reactor” is a five-year grant for $570,000 funded by Brookhaven National Laboratory’s extremely selective Laboratory Directed Research and Development Program. Together with co-principal investigator Dr. Eric A. Stach, group leader for the Electron Microscopy Group at the BNL’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials, Frenkel will use the grant to develop a micro-reactor that will enable scientists to explore the fundamental mechanisms of catalytic function by examining different properties of catalysts while they are in the same structural and dynamic state and the same reaction conditions. “In catalysis, many methods for understanding these properties can only be used one at a time—electron microscopy, infrared micro-spectroscopy and so on—and the catalyst ends up in a different state for each of these experiments,” explained Frenkel. “It’s difficult to compare information that was obtained using many different instruments, but until now, this was the only way to do it.”

The micro-reactor seeks to keep particles in the same condition while a variety of analysis techniques are employed, allowing scientists to gain a much better sense of how they function. “We’re going for the core of the problem,” Frenkel said. “Ultimately, this will create a better way of using, storing and converting energy.”

A third grant from Chinese petrochemical company Sinopec will enable Frenkel to lead a joint YU-Sinopec collaboration in catalysis. The three-year, $78,000 grant will fund Frenkel’s current research and provide for a PhD scientist from Sinopec to join Frenkel’s group and assist him in his work.

brookhaven lab1 Dr. Frenkel and University of New Hampshire Professor Xiaowei Teng conduct research with students at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Frenkel’s research in catalytic studies was also recently recognized in Science Magazine, where it was selected for an Editor’s Choice review. With post-doctoral research associate Qi Wang, Frenkel measured nanoparticles using a powerful source of X-rays called a Synchrotron at Brookhaven. They discovered that, rather than changing completely from one state to another at a certain temperature and size as had been previously believed, there is a transition zone between states when particles are changing forms. “This is of significance fundamentally because until now, the structures were known to merely change from one form to another—they were never envisioned to coexist in different forms,” Frenkel said. “With our information we can explain why catalysts often don’t work as expected and how to improve them. We are close to understanding the fundamental nature of catalytic mechanisms.”

Stern College students are involved in all of Frenkel’s research and will help with measurements, data analysis and interpretation in his new grants. Students will also visit UT for training and to learn about synthesis and measurements. That multi-university relationship is not new to his students—many have already accompanied him to Brookhaven to assist in his work with the Synchrotron and other cutting-edge instruments. “I’m giving them firsthand experience about what a researcher’s life is like early on as they conduct first-rate research,” said Frenkel. “This experience opens doors to any field they want to be in. I consider them very capable researchers who have the opportunity to learn extremely advanced material from myself and my colleagues.”

“Conducting research with Dr. Frenkel has helped me develop skills like computational analysis and critical thinking, which are essential in any scientific field,” said Alyssa Lerner '16S, a pre-engineering major who has been working with Dr. Frenkel at Brookhaven. “The hands-on experimental experience has given me a better understanding of how the scientific community operates, helping me make more informed career-related choices as I continue to advance my education.”

“A first-class scientist whose research is of immense importance usually reserves his time and effort to mentor advanced graduate students,” said Dr. Karen Bacon, the Dr. Monique C Katz Dean of Stern College. “Not so for Dr. Frenkel, whose dedication to training and inspiring the undergraduate women of Stern College is legendary. In response and over the years our students have intensified their dedication to research and have aspired higher and higher.” She added, “Today the Natural Science Division at Stern College is a powerhouse of productivity in no small measure due to Dr. Frenkel's belief in the future of women in science.”

“Doing active research at the frontier of science makes me a better teacher and gives me a better and deeper understanding of the science that I teach,” said Frenkel. “In the classroom, I often quote from the science that I do. The supportive environment at Stern is also what enables us to attract and retain top-quality faculty and researchers—they know they are joining a thriving and productive research environment.”