Turning point: Joel Rosenthal

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Chemist Joel Rosenthal's move into synthetic-fuels research wins him a prestigious award and a growing lab.

Joel Rosenthal, a chemist at the University of Delaware in Newark, was one of 30 young researchers in the United States to win a 2011 Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award, which provides research seed money. The award came in April from the Oak Ridge Associated Universities consortium, based in Tennessee.

What was the first turning point in your career?

I always thought I'd be a biologist, but as an undergraduate at New York University (NYU), I discovered a logic behind chemistry — its mechanisms and its quantitative nature — that I found compelling. Using the mechanisms underlying chemical reactions to build compounds and materials was like solving a puzzle. So I started studying organic chemistry. Then I heard Daniel Nocera, an inorganic chemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, give a seminar on molecular-level mechanisms of energy conversion. I realized that inorganic chemistry offered many more avenues for researching energy storage and release than did organic chemistry. During Dan's visit to NYU, he encouraged me to apply to MIT for my PhD. I went on to study inorganic chemistry in his lab.

Nocera's work drew media attention. What did that teach you?

Dan has achieved a series of high-profile advances — most recently, an inexpensive solar cell dubbed the artificial leaf. I was in his lab when he first started to attract interest from the mainstream press, including the television news programme Nightline and the science show NOVA. I began to understand how important it is to communicate chemistry and energy research to the public. Dan's ability to break important problems into small yet meaningful advances was a big part of his success.

What influenced your decision to accept a position at Delaware?

This university and department are underrated. Delaware is putting lots of resources into equipment such as spectrometers and an advanced X-ray diffractometer. In the current economic climate, this is one of the few institutions that is significantly increasing its research programme and hiring faculty members. There is a great atmosphere in my department, with six young professors all building their research programmes and collaborating with one another and with senior colleagues.

You assembled a seven-member lab group in your first 18 months at Delaware. Do you worry about over-committing your resources through such fast growth?

It can be difficult to compete with established researchers when recruiting students, but I convinced a postdoc and six first-year graduate students to join me. I'm not worried; in fact, I'm looking to grow further. Society will suffer if scientists don't tackle capture and storage of energy. In my lab, we're trying to generate synthetic fuels by using nickel and palladium electrocatalysts to convert carbon dioxide into, for example, energy-rich carbon monoxide, which is a building block for fuels.

I hope that in the next five to six years, my team and others will have mapped out important molecular-design principles that will help us to design catalysts. I need as many people helping me as possible. The question is whether I bring in enough dollars to support them all. But being here — where costs are much lower than at MIT, for example — has made it easier to quickly establish a group.

What has been the biggest change in energy research in the past few years?

There is a much greater emphasis on applied science, which is important, but I hope that it will not consume the field. There are also more people coming in. We need scientists, but I also see people doing their same old research and wrapping it in an energy context to tap into funding, without trying to be innovative. We need paradigm-shifting fundamental research.

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