Sixth Junior Faculty Member in UH Engineering Wins Prestigious NSF Award

It’s a perfect record for the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering, where all six of its applicants have been granted prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Awards for 2012.

CAREER Awards are given to outstanding junior-level faculty members to help them build successful research programs. Recipients “exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations,” according to the NSF.

The awards are among the most prestigious grants in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields and are one of the few awards factored into the official Top American Research University rankings. They are given to tenure-track faculty members and each must integrate research with teaching.

Jeffrey Rimer, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, is the sixth winner and latest recipient of a CAREER award at Cullen. Rimer won a five-year, $400,000 grant to further his research into zeolites. Rimer

With this win, Rimer joins five other engineering junior faculty members who have received CAREER awards this year. The other engineering recipients are Jiming Bao, Jacinta Conrad, Debora Rodrigues, Wei-Chuan Shih and Gila Stein.

Joseph W. Tedesco, dean of the Cullen College of Engineering, said the  college’s strong showing in the CAREER competition is proof of the advances the college has made in recent years.

“The Cullen College’s faculty ranks have grown by more than 20 percent since 2007,” Tedesco said. “These CAREER Awards prove that we’ve brought in some truly outstanding young researchers who will help take our research program to new heights. We are proud of them all!”

Additionally, UH’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics has two CAREER winners this year: Ognjen Miljanic and Angela Moeller, both assistant professors of chemistry.

Rimer, the latest CAREER recipient, will use the grant money to expand his efforts to improve zeolites, a class of catalysts used in the petroleum and chemical industries to create a range of different products, from ion-exchange additives in detergents to gasoline and alternative fuels.

Rimer has developed - and recently won a full patent for – a method to produce ultra-thin zeolites.

“An ideal catalyst is a thin crystal with high porous surface area, allowing molecules to enter, react, and then diffuse rapidly,” Rimer said.

During the synthesis of commercial-grade zeolites, the individual crystals grow through the attachment of growth units to the zeolite surface. Rimer has discovered certain molecules that attach to specific zeolite surfaces and block growth units from attaching, thereby tailoring the size and shape of zeolite crystals.

While the modified zeolites retain the same basic shape, through this process they can measure as thick as 100 nanometers, about 10-times thinner than unmodified zeolites.

With his earlier research to validate the approach of using zeolite modifiers, Rimer worked primarily with commercially available molecules. The CAREER award will allow him to create entirely new molecules to tailor the growth of specific zeolites. In doing so, he aims to develop a rational system for creating such molecules for any targeted zeolite.

“When we understand how a small library of molecules can tailor the shape of any single zeolite, we can think about other modifier-zeolite combinations,” Rimer said. “If you were to take a zeolite that hasn’t been studied by this approach, could you, based on its structure, predict a set of four or five molecules that may be effective in controlling its growth? The goal is to expand our understanding of how this works and establish some guidelines for creating these molecules.”