AMHERST, Mass. - Zeolites, minerals that are chemically similar to quartz and have uses ranging from petroleum refinement, to removing lead from drinking water, to producing air conditioners that won’t release pollutants, are a major research focus for Scott Auerbach, a chemistry professor at the University of Massachusetts.
Zeolites occur naturally or can be synthesized, Auerbach says. They are particularly useful to chemists because of their structure: they are honeycombed with microscopic "cages" that are uniformly sized and shaped. This structure enables scientists to filter out selected molecules with very fine precision, making it easier to separate one chemical from another in a mixture, according to Auerbach. He recently received a four-year, $300,000 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to pursue his work in zeolites. CAREER awards support the work of young faculty members. Specifically, Auerbach’s research will be in creating theories and computer simulations of chemical reactions and separations using zeolites.
There are hundreds of known zeolites, Auerbach says; he’ll focus on the three that are most often used in industry. No simple theory currently exists for predicting how molecules will diffuse through zeolites, Auerbach notes. One of his goals is to build computer models that will make such predictions. He offers an example: on his computer screen, an animation shows what looks like a cluster of green balloons bouncing gently against a red-and-yellow chicken-wire lattice. The graphic, he explains, shows the movement of a benzene molecule through the zeolite filter.
Auerbach’s award has an educational component. Beginning this semester, he will teach a two-week module in zeolites to first-year chemistry students, along with William Vining, director of the general chemistry program. Zeolites will be used to demonstrate other issues in chemistry, such as the effect of heat on molecular motion. Students will use a specially-created software program that enables them to "watch" a chemical reaction. They will be able to click a mouse to change the temperature and chemical structure of a reaction and see the virtual "results." The classes will also explore the role of zeolites in industry, with a guest lecture by UMass graduate William E. Mahoney, who until his recent retirement was a top executive at Witco, the Fortune 500 manufacturer of chemical and petroleum products.
Auerbach received his doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley, and did postdoctoral work at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He joined the UMass faculty in 1995. This is his second major grant from the NSF.