USF Chemists Get SMMARTT Thanks to Their MOMs

TAMPA, Fla. (Aug. 13, 2008) – While the slogan "Better Living Through Chemistry" is decades old, a team of chemists at the University of South Florida is carrying that idea forward in the hopes of making the next decades of the 21st century better and safer in a number of ways.

The team of USF chemists has initiated a new interdisciplinary research center called USF-SMMARTT (Smart Metal-organic Materials Advanced Research and Technology Transfer) for collaborative research in the development of 'smart' metal-organic materials, or MOMs, materials constructed from a combination of inorganic (metal) and organic (carbon-based) molecules.

"These combination materials will be applied to sustainable energy platforms for hydrogen storage and collecting solar energy more efficiently, and for homeland defense by using them to fabricate chemical and biological sensors to detect biological or chemical warfare agents as well as decontamination technologies,” said Mike Zaworotko, a professor in the USF Department of Chemistry and director of USF-SMMARTT.

According to SMMARTT team member Mohamed Eddaoudi, an associate professor in USF’s Department of Chemistry, organic-inorganic materials can be fashioned into frameworks that offer the best of both chemical worlds. Organic molecules offer "tunability," allowing chemists to readily manipulate them.

"While inorganic moieties provide access to unique chemical and physical properties, assembly of open framework materials introduces tailorable porosity, and their exploration in host-guest chemistry that enable chemists to trap or sequester materials inside the pores, where a number of chemical or biological functions can be carried out," Eddaoudi said.

Eddaoudi is responsible for designing and synthesizing the subclass of MOMs called "zeolite-like metal-organic frameworks," or ZMOFs. Zeolites are well known for their applications in petroleum refinement and catalysis.

"This new kind of material is the perfect marriage between two important classes of porous materials and MOMs," he said.

According to Zaworotko, prior to becoming a full-fledged center, the USF-SMMARTT group had a great track record of receiving funding, obtaining patents and publishing their work. Now, some new federal grants from the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) are going to allow them to push their research farther.

For example, Eddaoudi is the principal investigator (PI) on a $912,000 DoE grant supporting research into the design and synthesis of MOMs for hydrogen storage. While hydrogen fuels are in our future, how to store hydrogen has been an ongoing issue in alternative energy development.

"These new materials could provide an answer to the outstanding challenge of creating practical hydrogen storage media for vehicular on-board applications, helping us to realize the enormous economic potential in harnessing hydrogen fuel," he said.

Chemistry department chair and professor Randy Larsen is the PI on a recently received $2.5 million DoD grant aimed at not only furthering the development of MOMs as sensors that can detect chemical and biological weapons threats, but also for related technologies that can be used for decontamination following attacks.

"Chemical weapons, such as nerve, blister and choking agents, and biological agents, such as anthrax and ricin, pose threats to the military, as well as civilians," said Larsen. "Detection and decontamination are our first lines of defense."

While the new metal-organic materials can be used to detect the chemical and biological threats using specialized and embedded receptors, the MOMs technology can also be employed for decontamination and degrading the agents when they are encapsulated in the hybrid metal-organic materials.

Porphyrins – ring-shaped molecules that bind to metals – developed by associate professor and research team member Peter Zhang, will help detect chemical or biological agents. Microscopic, metal-organic "nanoballs," developed in Zaworotko’s lab, can be embedded in specially developed thin films of materials called polymers, the research focus of chemistry professor and team researcher Julie Harmon, used to encapsulate and immobilize the threatening molecules.

Decontamination, according to Larsen, can be accomplished photocatalytically, using light, or by chemical or biological deactivation.

"Because they are uniquely suited to provide solutions to so many problems, MOMs have captured our imaginations," Zaworotko said.

The University of South Florida is among the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of 39 community-engaged public universities as designated by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. It is one of Florida's top three research universities. USF was awarded more than $300 million in research contracts and grants last year. The university offers 219 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The university has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 45,000 students on campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.

 – USF –

News release by Randolph Fillmore