Inside USD

Capturing Carbon Dioxide for Cleaner Fuels

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Carbon fuels continue to emit greenhouse gases that cause global warming. But what if those harmful substances could be captured from the environment and safely stored?

Lauren Benz, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of San Diego, has been awarded a prestigious $450,000 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant from the National Science Foundation to study nanoporous hybrid frameworks and other supported materials with novel properties.

“These materials are essentially like sponges with tiny nano-sized pores that have demonstrated excellent capacity for carbon dioxide storage,” Benz explained. “Carbon dioxide gas is known to be a major contributor to global warming, so efforts which enable or improve the capture and storage of carbon dioxide are of broad importance. Furthermore, these materials have relatively unexplored and exciting possible reactivity in other systems.”

With the five-year NSF grant, she will lead a fundamental investigation of these hybrid materials in order to establish important connections between material composition, gas binding and reactivity.

After studying at Harvard University and the University of California, Santa Barbara, Benz began teaching three years ago at USD. The NSF’s prestigious CAREER award is granted to junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the mission of their organizations. “Professor Benz has been a superb addition to our department,” said Tammy Dwyer, interim chair and professor of USD’s Chemistry and Biochemistry Department. “She is poised to make some important and singular contributions to the field.”

Demonstrating the outstanding caliber of USD’s chemistry faculty, Benz is the third professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry within the last five years to receive the CAREER award. “This award will push my work at USD to a new level, and provide my students with even bigger opportunities,” she said. “To use a sports analogy, I guess it must feel like qualifying for the Olympics. I feel honored to be selected by my peers for this award, and look forward to accomplishing even greater feats in the future.”

Funding from the NSF award will enable Benz to hire 10 undergraduate student researchers to participate in this work over the next five years. In addition, she will integrate her research in materials chemistry into the undergraduate curriculum so that her students will gain valuable experience in and exposure to these modern challenges in chemistry.

A portion of the award also will be used to form a network of women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields in San Diego to provide support for women transitioning to academic positions. Benz is passionate about the support of women in academia and would like to see greater numbers of tenured female professors in the STEM fields. Her position at USD was funded by a grant from the Clare Booth Luce program, the most significant source of private support for women in STEM fields.

“We’re very pleased that the NSF has recognized Professor Benz’s outstanding work and potential, including her efforts to increase the number of women in STEM fields,” said USD College of Arts and Sciences Dean Mary Boyd. “Her work complements our NSF-funded ADVANCE grant (Advancement of Female Faculty: Institutional Climate, Recruitment and Mentoring) that similarly seeks to recruit, retain and foster the professional development of female faculty in the STEM disciplines at USD.”

Students at USD say they are inspired to work with her.  “I owe a lot of my academic achievements to Professor Benz’s caring and thoughtful approach in guiding me as a student researcher and as a more confident individual,” said Aileen Park, a junior majoring in biophysics who has had two papers published in scientific journals. “Without her help, I do not think I could be the student that I am today – a proud USD scholar who is confident in accepting various challenges and never being afraid to fail.”

– Liz Harman

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