Parker’s work may have applications ranging from designing better materials in solar cells to making better dyes used as cancer therapy—dyes that react against a tumor when doctors shine light on them.
The NSF awarded Parker, an assistant professor of chemistry, $650,000 over the next five years to conduct “advanced simulations of chemical reactions triggered by light.”
The award allows Parker and his research team to continue developing new computational methods for understanding photochemistry dynamics, which lie at the heart of many important processes from photosynthesis to photovoltaics.
“Shane Parker’s research in photochemistry is both eloquent and impressive and gets to the heart of the university’s intentions to expand research and advance innovation,” said College of Arts and Sciences Dean Joy K. Ward. “I am not surprised that the National Science Foundation sees the great promise of his work for the greater good, and I look forward to seeing where this new research takes him in the future.”
Parker said this research will lay the groundwork for “making chemical bonds better” in several potential applications.
“This power of light in chemical reactions is what changed the course of my research when I was just a PhD student,” Parker said. “We know a lot about organic chemistry, but once you add light into the mix—which is essentially a condensed packet of intense energy hitting the molecule—all the rules of chemistry are upended.”
Photochemical reactions, which use or produce light, are fundamental to processes such as electricity generation in solar cells; for photocatalysis, a green technology used to clean water and for environmental detoxification; and in medicine, for repairing DNA damage caused by ultraviolet light.
But researchers are still pursuing a fuller understanding of the microscopic mechanism of photochemical reactions to reliably design these new photocatalysts or photosensitizers, according to the NSF.
But photochemistry is only half the equation, Parker said.
“We’re also really on the edge of ultra-fast physics with this—simulations that occur in a time frame of 2 times 10 -13 seconds,” Parker said, suggesting a speed faster than of less than a half a trillionth of a second—about the amount of time it takes for light to travel the width of a human hair. “With big, fast computers, we can better understand how chemistry happens and in detail that just isn’t possible in a real-life experiment, but now we can better understand the mechanism of complicated photochemical reactions.”