Professor’s Innovative Compounds Research Earns NSF Support

By Daniel Perez
Posted: 8/01/11

Pioneering UTEP chemist Luis Echegoyen, Ph.D., admits he is not much of a cook in the kitchen, but he is a five-star chef in his labs.

Luis Echegoyen, Ph.D., the Robert A. Welch Chair in chemistry at UTEP. File Photo: University Communications.The latest experiments on the menu include preparation of chemical compounds that eventually may be attached to fullerenes, special spherical carbon molecules. Eventually these compounds could be layered on flexible plastic shells to become organic self-sustaining voltaic cells that will be able to generate electricity.

To stress the novelty of these compounds, Echegoyen, the Robert A. Welch Chair in chemistry, said that whatever amount is prepared will be the only available on the planet. Talk about a secret family recipe.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded a three-year, $450,000 grant to The University of Texas at El Paso so Echegoyen could continue to study fullerenes – soccer ball-shaped carbon cages that have unique electronic properties. The goal is to enhance the molecules’ electron accepting abilities.

Echegoyen said that he and his team of student researchers will use the grant funds to create new compounds that never have been produced before now.

“We are at a very early intellectual stage, and (these compounds) are difficult to prepare,” he said over the steady hum of lab equipment in one of his two labs on the first floor of the Education Building. He talked, sometimes animatedly, about the grant and his research as several of his students worked around him.

Eventually, he will learn how to control the number and placement of specific chemical groups on the surface of fullerenes, which are named after 20th century Renaissance man and creator of the geodesic dome R. Buckminster Fuller.

The NSF grant, which was awarded July 1, will help Echegoyen continue the revolutionary research he started 20 years ago.

The scope of his work in fullerene chemistry has earned the respect of fellow researchers in the field including Michael Irwin, a UTEP assistant professor of chemistry, and materials science and engineering. He said the compounds created through the latest grant will allow the research team to produce high-performance photovoltaics, heat transfer materials and radiation protection.

“With Professor Echegoyen’s supramolecular chemistry (the collective behavior of organized ensembles of molecules), organic-based electronics will reach new heights in the form of state-of-the-art devices,” Irwin said.

Echegoyen’s work is on the cutting edge of physical and physical organic chemistry, said Fred Wudl, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and materials at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Wudl, a pioneer in organic chemistry and materials who was named among the Top 100 chemists in the world by the Institute of Scientific Information, said Echegoyen has maintained a high level of international visibility because of his professional research, including his work with endohedral fullerenes (molecules with additional interior atoms).

“UTEP’s reputation has indubitably been enhanced dramatically in the fields of chemistry and materials with the advent of Professor Echegoyen,” he said.

Echegoyen’s research is highly significant with respect to discoveries and innovative applications in multiple areas including renewable energy applications, said Roberto Osegueda, Ph.D., UTEP’s vice president for research. 

“Dr. Echegoyen is world renowned in this field, bringing recognition to UTEP, assisting with the recruitment of outstanding graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, and contributing to UTEP’s aspirations to be a national research university,” he said.

One of the positive byproducts of Echegoyen’s research is the international collaborations with colleagues and students. For example, his research team of three doctoral students and six postdoctoral students will include individuals from Spain, China, Iran, India, Colombia and Puerto Rico.

While excited about his current research, the chemist said that he anticipates receiving additional grants that will further the breadth of his scientific investigations.

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