Chemical Engineer at UMass Amherst Wins Major National Award to Support His Research

AMHERST, Mass. - James Watkins, assistant professor in the chemical engineering department at the University of Massachusetts, has been named to receive a Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award for 2000. The $60,000 award is given to just 20 chemists each year, and will support his research.

The Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Awards Program was established to strengthen the teaching and research careers of talented young faculty in the chemical sciences, according to the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, which makes the awards. Criteria for selection include a commitment to education and an independent body of scholarship that signals the promise of continuing outstanding contributions to both research and teaching.

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 in 1997, and a Packard Fellowship in 1998. Both awards are aimed at supporting the research and educational activities of young faculty members.

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 single red blood cell is about 8,000 nanometers in diameter). 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.

Specifically, Watkins fabricates the devices and components using supercritical fluids (SCFs), highly compressed gases that have some qualities of gases, and some of the qualities of liquids, Watkins explains. "SCFs exist in a sort of hybrid state, in which they offer the best qualities of gases and liquids," he said. "That gives scientists a real edge in the lab." 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 said.