(2ja) Molecular-Level Understanding and Design of Functional Nanomaterials for Sustainable Energy Applications | AIChE

(2ja) Molecular-Level Understanding and Design of Functional Nanomaterials for Sustainable Energy Applications

Research Interests

Meeting the global challenges of the 21st century, including production of clean water, energy, commodity chemicals, and fuels, requires engineering new materials with tailored surface chemistries and reactivities. Rational design of new functional materials like heterogeneous catalysts, adsorbents, and electronic devices, requires molecular-level understanding of active sites, defects, or dopants at surfaces and interfaces to relate local structures and composition to macroscopic properties and develop design criteria for improved material properties. Scientific insights into design of new functional materials must furthermore be industrially relevant and scalable so that new technologies can be deployed at a large scale.

I am broadly interested in developing a research program focused on design of functional energy materials through molecular-level insights provided by leveraging recent advances in state-of-the-art spectroscopic and synthetic techniques. My PhD work under the joint supervision of Professor Brad Chmelka and Prof. Jacob Israelachvili at UC Santa Barbara focused on understanding the structures, interactions, and functionalities of dilute defect, dopant, or active sites at heterogeneous surfaces, primarily by applying advanced heteronuclear solid-state NMR spectroscopy methods, combined with complementary spectroscopic (IR, UV-vis, X-ray spectroscopies) and scattering (XRD, TEM) techniques, to access the sub-nanometer structures and reactivities of heterogeneous material surfaces. This approach allowed identification of new non-classical crystallization pathways for mesoporous zeolites,1,2 as well as established the local structure of defect sites3 and aluminum heteroatoms4 in (alumino)silicate zeolite catalysts, providing direct atomic-level insights into the macroscopic adsorption and reaction properties of the materials. The experimental methodology is extensible beyond oxide-based catalysts, for example to understanding the origin of the optoelectronic properties arising from electronically active dopants or defects in semiconductor nanocrystals.5,6

Such insights into molecular-level structure and function can be directly leveraged for the design of improved functional materials like heterogeneous catalysts. My postdoctoral research at the Laboratory of Inorganic Chemistry at ETH Zürich under the supervision of Prof. Christophe Copéret has focused on design of heterogeneous catalyst materials with specific structures of surface metal active sites utilizing the principles of surface organometallic chemistry. These synthetic routes yield relatively well-defined and isolated oxide-supported metal species, where the coordination sphere of the metal can be tailored synthetically enabling structure-function relations. Combining state-of-the-art solid-state NMR spectroscopy techniques, tailored material syntheses, first-principles calculations, and catalytic reactivity tests, I have identified the previously overlooked role of surface interactions in driving the reactivity of silica-supported olefin metathesis catalysts,7 providing design rules for synthesis of improved catalyst materials by tuning synthesis and reaction conditions. Analysis of reaction properties of well-defined Mo and W oxide-based model catalysts have also provided evidence for a previously unknown reaction mechanism in gas-phase propene metathesis that can be manipulated to dramatically enhance catalyst activity.8 I have also worked on establishing new experimentally accessible spectroscopic descriptors for molybdenum-based catalysts that link directly to reactivity9 and provide potential routes to unlocking the surface distributions and reactivities of supported Mo-based catalysts.

In my independent research, I seek to apply and expand advanced spectroscopic tools to understand crystallization, adsorption, and reaction phenomena at the molecular level to guide catalyst synthesis for the design of new materials for energy applications, focused on sustainable routes to commodity chemicals, feedstocks, and fuels. To this end I plan to develop and utilize new in situ spectroscopic techniques to understand catalyst activation and deactivation dynamics, particularly for challenging, poorly understood reactions of high importance for the future sustainable economy such as biomass valorization and depolymerization. Overall, new molecular insights into the structures and dynamics of organic-inorganic interfaces will provide new opportunities for material design and engineering.

All of my previous and ongoing research has been conducted in close collaboration with industrial and academic partners, and I aim to continue to foster academic-industrial partnerships in my independent research program by focusing on reactions and applications of industrial interest and relevance.

Teaching Interests

It is of crucial importance to foster creative problem solving and analytical skills in the next generation of chemical engineers through teaching and mentorship, and I am enthusiastic to pursue this through teaching and mentorhisp at the graduate and undergraduate level. My teaching and mentorship philosophy prioritizes creative problem solving, promoting diversity and inclusivity, and interdisciplinary collaboration while maintaining the highest level of scientific standards and ethics. I am comfortable with the chemical engineering core curriculum and particularly courses in reaction engineering and reactor design. I additionally envision developing elective courses designed to equip students with the tools necessary for creative problem solving in modern chemical engineering careers, including in specialized topics such as catalysis, spectroscopy, and energy. I have extensive experience as a teacher and mentor, having served as teaching assistant for reaction engineering and process controls courses both as an undergraduate at Arizona State University and as a PhD student at UC Santa Barbara. I additionally volunteered to give a substantial fraction (20-25%) of the lectures in the classes for which I TA’d as a doctoral student. As a doctoral student, I mentored one undergraduate student intern, and as a postdoctoral researcher I have mentored Master’s students in synthetic chemistry, computational, and spectroscopic methods. My mentorship strategy is to provide tailored guidance depending on the long-term plan of the students, including by providing access to outside resources, encouraging student-driven research questions, and fostering research independence.

Awards, fellowships, and research grants (partial list)

  • ETH Zürich Research Grant (2021-2023)
  • Swiss National Science Foundation Spark Grant (2020-2021)
  • Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award, UCSB Chemical Engineering (2014-2015)
  • UCSB Regents Special Fellowship (2013-2015)
  • Air and Waste Management Association Scholarship, Grand Canyon Section (2012)

Summary of research outputs

Total publications: 18 (including 2 in submission, preprints available); 6 as first or co-first author

Year first published: 2017

Total citations (Google Scholar): 324; h-index: 9; i10-index: 9

Conference presentations: 23 presentations (talks or posters) at national or international conferences

Publications (partial list)

(1) Berkson, Z. J.; Messinger, R. J.; Na, K.; Seo, Y.; Ryoo, R.; Chmelka, B. F. Non-Topotactic Transformation of Silicate Nanolayers into Mesostructured MFI Zeolite Frameworks During Crystallization. Angew. Chemie - Int. Ed. 2017, 56 (19), 5164–5169.

(2) Kumar, M.; Berkson, Z. J.; Clark, R. J.; Shen, Y.; Prisco, N. A.; Zheng, Q.; Zeng, Z.; Zheng, H.; McCusker, L. B.; Palmer, J. C.; Chmelka, B. F., Rimer, J. D. Crystallization of Mordenite Platelets Using Cooperative Organic Structure-Directing Agents. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2019, 141 (51), 20155–20165.

(3) Smeets, S.; Berkson, Z. J.; Xie, D.; Zones, S. I.; Wan, W.; Zou, X.; Hsieh, M. F.; Chmelka, B. F.; McCusker, L. B.; Baerlocher, C. Well-Defined Silanols in the Structure of the Calcined High-Silica Zeolite SSZ-70: New Understanding of a Successful Catalytic Material. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2017, 139 (46), 16803–16812.

(4) Berkson, Z. J.; Hsieh, M.-F.; Smeets, S.; Gajan, D.; Lund, A.; Lesage, A.; Xie, D.; Zones, S. I.; McCusker, L. B.; Baerlocher, C.; Chmelka, B. F. Preferential Siting of Aluminum Heteroatoms in the Zeolite Catalyst Al-SSZ-70. Angew. Chemie - Int. Ed. 2019, 58 (19), 6255–6259.

(5) Yesinowski, J. P.; Berkson, Z. J.; Cadars, S.; Purdy, A. P.; Chmelka, B. F. Spatially Correlated Distributions of Local Metallic Properties in Bulk and Nanocrystalline GaN. Phys. Rev. B 2017, 95 (23), 1–9.

(6) Cho, S. H.;* Ghosh, S.;* Berkson, Z. J.;* Hachtel, J. A.; Shi, J.; Zhao, X.; Reimnitz, L. C.; Dahlman, C. J.; Ho, Y.; Yang, A.; et al. Syntheses of Colloidal F:In 2 O 3 Cubes: Fluorine-Induced Faceting and Infrared Plasmonic Response. Chem. Mater. 2019, 31 (7), 2661–2676. *Equal contribution.

(7) Berkson, Z. J.; Bernhardt, M.; Schlapansky, S. L.; Benedikter, M. J.; Buchmeiser, M. R.; Price, G. A.; Sunley, G. J.; Copéret, C. Olefin-Surface Interactions: A Key Activity Parameter in Silica-Supported Olefin Metathesis Catalysts. JACS Au 2022, 2 (3), 777–786.

(8) Gani, T. Z. H.; Berkson, Z. J.; Zhu, R.; Kang, J. H.; Iorio, J. R. Di; Chan, W.; Consoli, D. F.; Shaikh, S. K.; Copéret, C.; Román-Leshkov, Y. Universal Promotion of Heterogeneous Olefin Metathesis Catalysts by Controlling Dynamic Active Site Renewal. In revision. 2022. Preprint: https://doi.org/10.26434/chemrxiv-2021-140tk

(9) Berkson, Z. J.; Lätsch, L.; Hillenbrand, J.; Fürstner, A.; Copéret, C. Classifying and Understanding the Reactivities of Mo Based Alkyne Metathesis Catalysts from 95Mo NMR Chemical Shift Descriptors. Submitted. 2022. https://doi.org/10.26434/chemrxiv-2022-44f05.