The following is adapted from a National Science Foundation press release.
MIT professor of chemistry Mircea Dincă has been selected as the recipient of the National Science Foundation's 2016 Alan T. Waterman Award. This is the 40th anniversary of this prestigious prize, which is the foundation's highest honor recognizing an outstanding researcher under the age of 35.
"It's a pleasure to recognize Dr. Dincă as this year's recipient of the Alan T. Waterman Award," said National Science Foundation (NSF) Director France Córdova. "His research in microporous solids is revolutionizing how scientists approach this exciting new technology, opening the door for future discoveries."
Congress established the Alan T. Waterman Award in 1975 to recognize outstanding young scientists whose accomplishments showed exceptional promise of significant future achievement. Candidates may not be more than 35 years old, or seven years beyond receiving a doctorate degree.
During the past 40 years, the award has been used by winners to document the earliest history of life on Earth, to find earthlike planets outside our solar system, and even discover ways to build replaceable body parts for people suffering chronic conditions.
Dincă's research demonstrated that metal organic frameworks (MOF) can store electrical energy — something previously unknown — resulting in a new class of MOF materials with high surface areas possessing "charge mobility values." One day, they may be used in electrocatalysis for renewable energy applications, such as carbon dioxide and oxygen reduction in fuel cells or electric vehicle fuel storage.
MOFs are materials with microscopic pores that act like sponges and can absorb or pick up various molecules and ions. These properties make them useful for gas and vapor separation, drug storage and delivery, plus any number of other applications. In the past 15 years, more than 20,000 MOFs have been reported and studied.
Dincă's research focuses on using organic and inorganic materials to develop new, hybrid MOFs with unprecedented electrical conductivity. Electrical conductivity in MOFs is potentially useful to make high-powered super capacitors that store power for both novel and anticipated uses like renewable batteries in cell phones.
He and his team also focus on giving MOFs redox activity. This imparts important functionality to a material, allowing it to not only selectively absorb molecules into its dynamic framework, but change them chemically through controlled catalysis.
In addition to the Alan T. Waterman medal, Dincă will receive a grant of $1 million over a five-year period for scientific research or advanced study in any field.
Dincă says he has no predetermined goals for the next phases of his research, but he's looking to explore areas of research he described as "a little bit unknown to us."
"I think if you go into something with a little bit of ignorance, into a new field, you can discover new, interesting things," he said.
Last year, NSF's Division of Materials Research in the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences awarded Dincă a CAREER grant for studies of small molecule reactivity in redox-active MOF materials.