AMHERST, Mass. - James J. Watkins, assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Massachusetts, has been awarded a five-year, $625,000 Packard Fellowship. The award is part of $15 million granted to young scientists in all fields by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.
The chemical engineering department at UMass is now one of only three in the country that is home to two Packard Fellows. The others are Stanford University and Princeton University. Michael Tsapatsis of the chemical engineering department was awarded a Packard Fellowship in 1996.
Watkins’ research is ultimately aimed at creating nanodevices - materials composed of tiny metal, organic, or semiconductor components ranging in size from 10 to 100 nanometers (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter; meters are just a few inches longer than a yard). Such devices can be used to increase the speed and capacity of microelectronics, such as computers; to enhance sensor technology; and to improve chemical reactions and separations of products.
In creating the devices, Watkins is relying on his expertise in supercritical fluids (SCFs). SCFs are highly compressed gases that have some qualities of gases, and some of the qualities of liquids, Watkins explains. This combination of characteristics provides real advantages in the synthesis of high-tech materials. "SCFs exist in a sort of hybrid state, in which they offer the best qualities of gases and liquids," Watkins said. "That gives scientists a real edge in the lab." Essentially, Watkins and his collaborators use SCFs to metalize areas of a device with extreme precision. The metalized areas, called nanodots and nanowires, serve as electrical conductors or catalysts for chemical reactions, depending on the intended application. Watkins has a particular expertise in working with the supercritical fluid, carbon dioxide. "CO2 is an environmentally friendly solvent so its use reduces hazardous emissions. The combination of properties is quite compelling," he notes.
Watkins, who received a doctoral degree in polymer science and engineering from the University in 1997, has won a slate of prestigious awards, including a highly competitive CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF).