Plass Receives 5-year NSF Award

  • Kate Plass, assistant professor of chemistry, hopes "chemical tricks" will help her develop readily available material that absorbs sunlight and transforms that energy into electricity.

Kate Plass, assistant professor of chemistry at Franklin & Marshall, has spent much of her young career exploring ways to create less-expensive solar cell technology. But Plass says the broader implications of her work are not necessarily the most exciting part—at least for her.

“Most people would probably think the most fascinating thing is that our research can contribute to inexpensive solar energy capture," Plass said. "But I’m excited about the science itself, and tricking nature into doing things it doesn’t want to do.”

Plass recently received a five-year Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant from the National Science Foundation to support her project, “Development of Earth-Abundant Mixed-Metal Sulfide Nanoparticles for Use in Solar Energy Conversion.” Funding for the first year of the grant is $141, 353. Plass continues a tradition of CAREER grant recipients from F&M, including Scott Brewer, assistant professor of chemistry; Andrea Lommen, associate professor of astronomy; and Ryan Mehl, former associate professor of chemistry.

Throughout the project, Plass will work with students to develop new syntheses of inexpensive nanoparticles designed to absorb light in photovoltaics (devices that convert light into electricity). The research will include “tricks” such as the incorporation of abundant metals into a sulfur framework.

“Incorporating aluminum and silicon into a sulfur framework would allow us to create nanoparticles that have ‘tunable’ color,” she said. “If everything goes well, we’d have a readily available material that absorbs sunlight and transforms that energy into electricity. We’ll do some chemical tricks to make metal ions react with sulfur in ways we want. It’s really interesting, fundamental science that has a role in developing technology.”

Plass, who earned her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 2006, specializes in inorganic chemistry and materials studies. She is particularly interested in the relationships between surface and solid-state properties of materials and their technologically important behavior.

The NSF’s CAREER program, which supports junior faculty members who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through the integration of teaching and research, seems like the perfect fit for Plass.

“As a graduate student, I always thought I’d go into industry,” Plass said. “But in industry, you’re doing applied research on what others want you to do. At F&M, I get to do my own research and teach, which is exactly what I want to do.”

In addition to her CAREER grant, Plass has received several awards to fund her research in recent years. She won a two-year, $50,000 grant from the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund in 2009; a $45,000 Cottrell College Science Award from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement in 2008; and a $30,000 start-up grant from the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation, also in 2008.

- Chris Karlesky

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