(l-r) Mary Lou Lindstrom, Dr. Monte Helm, and Colleen Thogerson at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
Recent research conducted by Fort Lewis Chemistry professor Dr. Monte Helm in collaboration with the Center for Molecular Electrocatalysis at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has the potential to make delivering renewable energy to the world on a large scale a reality.
Since graduate school, Dr. Helm has researched the synthesis of new phosphorus ligands, a process to help make catalysts more efficient. “I think it’s so important to balance being an effective teacher with doing high-quality research,” says Dr. Helm, who came to Fort Lewis in 2003—after two years as a Dreyfus Fellow at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and one year as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Sussex. “It’s what makes us great teachers in the Fort Lewis Chemistry department.” And so in 2010, Dr. Helm took a one-year sabbatical to work at PNNL on an urgent problem—the energy crisis—and research how his ligands could help solve it.
“We currently have the technology to generate renewable energy,” says Dr. Helm. “We just don’t have a way to store it and transport it in large quantities.” While science is able to extract hydrogen from water—a clean way to convert electrical energy into a chemical fuel—the problem has always been doing so cheaply and quickly. This year, Dr. Helm and colleagues discovered that attaching his ligands to nickel, an inexpensive, abundant element, significantly speeds up the hydrogen generation process.
FLC Chemistry graduates Colleen Thogerson and Mary Lou Lindstrom
work in the lab as a part of their 4-month internship at the Pacific
Northwest National Laboratory. Photo courtesy of Elaine King, PNNL.
It was a huge step toward a hydrogen economy. “This is the first synthetically created catalyst to meet the bar as far as speed,” says Dr. Helm. “Now we’re focused on doing it with as low energy input as possible.” Dr. Helm returned to Fort Lewis for the fall 2011 semester, and lab work will continue at PNNL—and in Dr. Helm’s campus lab. He and several students will form catalysts in the lab and send them to PNNL to test their effectiveness. “I also hope to take the students to PNNL next summer so they can test the catalysts themselves.”
Involving students in his work long term was always his intent, but Dr. Helm’s new PNNL connections also led to two Fort Lewis students landing four-month internships at PNNL during his final months there—Mary Lou Lindstrom and Colleen Thogerson, both May 2011 graduates.
Dr. Helm and his PNNL coauthors published a paper in the August 12 issue of Science, the world’s leading journal of original scientific research (titled “A Synthetic Nickel Electrocatalyst with a Turnover Frequency Above 100,000 s−1 for H2 Production). Their work has also received widespread news coverage in Chemistry World, Chemical & Engineering News, BBC and many other places. “This definitely raises the profile of Fort Lewis as a great science school,” says Dr. Helm. “It puts us in the national spotlight, and it also gives students who are interested in science another great reason to come here.”
Dr. Helm says he and his colleagues have always known that the Fort Lewis Chemistry program was special. “This is a very strong program,” he says. “We send more than half of our graduates to graduate school, which ranks us in the top 10 percent in the nation and means we’re an excellent choice for those who want to enter Ph.D. programs in chemistry. Fort Lewis undergraduates have opportunities to do cutting-edge research that’s nationally recognized. Those kinds of experiences at an undergraduate level are rare and very exciting.”
Read more about the Chemistry department here.
Read more about Helm's research here.