Assistant Professor Leah Dodson Receives Department of Energy Early Career Award
The $875,000 award will support the development of new tools to advance her alternative fuels research.
University of Maryland Chemistry and Biochemistry Assistant Professor Leah Dodson received a 2023 Early Career Research Award from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The highly competitive five-year grant, awarded through the DOE’s Gas Phase Chemical Physics program, recognizes rising stars in science. The grant supports researchers who show great promise and will be instrumental in meeting the big scientific challenges we face as a nation.
"It is so humbling to receive this award,” Dodson said. “The Gas Phase Chemical Physics program of the DOE supports the titans of research in my field and joining their ranks is such an honor. To do so as an Early Career scholar makes it all the more special.”
For Dodson, who joined the UMD faculty in 2019, the DOE Early Career grant comes on the heels of receiving a Doctoral New Investigator grant from the American Chemical Society’s Petroleum Research Fund in 2022 and an award from the National Science Foundation Division of Chemistry: Disciplinary Research Programs in 2022.
“This award recognizes Leah Dodson’s creativity and talent for developing powerful new chemical physics tools to probe and manipulate the quantum states of molecular gases,” said Janice Reutt-Robey, chair of UMD’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “Leah is breaking new ground by harnessing chemical and optical interactions to prepare molecular gases, including important fuels, in energy-saving states for transport and storage.”
Dodson will receive $875,000 from the DOE over five years to further her alternative fuels research, a project that interestingly grew from her collaborations with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and her own reaction mechanism and astrochemistry research at UMD.
“Since this award is longer than the usual three years of funding, it really helps to support the possibility and longevity of this high-risk, high-reward project,” Dodson said. “The award will support trainees at the postdoctoral, graduate and undergraduate levels and will continue to build up the advanced instrumentation infrastructure in my laboratory by providing funds for cryogenic and laser equipment.”
In her research, Dodson will explore the challenges of safely and efficiently trapping, storing and transporting gaseous molecules such as hydrogen and methane that could serve as alternative fuel sources in the future. Her approach to solving such challenges will leverage her extensive studies of chemical reactions at temperatures hundreds of degrees below zero while also venturing into the field of porous materials, which—though new to her—happens to be a major strength of the department.
Dodson plans to use advanced chemical physics techniques to develop a novel method based on adsorbent materials (in this case, molecules from a gas that stick to a surface) to enrich these gaseous fuel molecules for use in cryogenic storage vessels, which would help to make them a practical energy alternative to conventional fuels.
“The energy crisis is a very real and raw experience for Americans and the world,” Dodson explained. “In just the past couple of years, we have experienced sold-out gas stations and periods of shockingly high prices. In addition to energy security, we have to think about sustainability and the impacts on climate, all of which have led to DOE goals to divest from gasoline and diesel fuels. But this movement cannot happen without affordable and safe alternative transportation fuels. Our work will investigate one platform for increasing alternative fuel storage efficiency from a fundamental chemical physics perspective and would empower us to probe the quantum physics of these molecules.”
Dodson’s research mission is to produce laboratory-scale samples of alternative fuels that have been prepared in specific conditions, with the ultimate goal of selectively purifying methane in a very specific quantum state so it can be stored much more efficiently and safely in porous materials.
“Achieving a fundamental understanding of the mechanisms for artificial enrichment is a key step toward optimal storage devices for alternative fuels, enabling their use for a more sustainable and green energy future,” Dodson said.