Collaborations in chemistry reach across departments, institutions, and borders
Collaboration in research is greater than the sum of its parts, says Mark Hoffmann, chemistry department chair and a research scientist involved in cooperative ventures not only at UND but also with campuses in North Dakota and across the country.
A theoretical and computational physical chemist, Hoffmann is interested in the structure and bonding that takes place in molecules. He attempts to understand what electrons actually do in a molecule, especially in its excited state. This “bottom-up,” or ab initio, approach is a combination of fundamental physics and chemistry.
Hoffmann applies these techniques for understanding molecular structure to a variety of problems, most of which are energy-related. Some of the work in which he’s involved is at an interface between environmental and biological chemistry. Some of these studies concern catalysis, in which substances accelerate a chemical reaction but remain unchanged themselves. Both areas are involved in an investigation of combustion chemistry, or high-temperature chemistry, and trace metals.
Hoffmann’s work is basic science, although his and others’ conclusions and findings are used in technology research to develop potential applications. Research, he emphasizes, is a balance between one’s interests and available funding, as well as between “hard” and applied science. Funding agencies are increasingly recognizing the value of partnerships and collaborative research ventures that allow scientists to build on each others’ strengths and make more breakthroughs.
Hoffmann is involved in a remarkable number of research partnerships, both formal and informal. Here are a few:
With Ames National Lab in Iowa, Hoffmann is working on a project funded by the Department of Energy EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) to develop new electronic structure methods amenable to high-performance computing. The group’s goal is to develop those methods further, especially by adding parallel and distributed computing capabilities, and then disseminating the programs across the globe.
A catalysis cluster involves three chemists each at UND and North Dakota State University. Their goals are to understand catalysis in broad terms, assist in the development of new catalysts, and explore new uses of existing catalysts. Hoffmann is the only computational chemist working with five experimentalists. Although the cluster’s funding will end and it will dissolve as a formal unit, the group will continue interacting and working together.
His newest cluster, one of two in North Dakota, is a group working on sustainable and renewable energy with a two-pronged goal: scientific research and economic development. Known as the SUNRISE Group, they seek to help North Dakota and the nation deal with changing energy needs and resources in the near and distant future. The research has three themes: to understand the role of trace metals in coal combustion, to research biofuels, and to examine wind energy. The group is made up of two UND chemists, Hoffmann and Irina Smoliakova; two UND chemical engineering faculty, Mike Mann and Wayne Seames; and two NDSU researchers, chemist John Hershberger and plant scientist Burton Johnson.
A year-old collaboration with UND’s Energy and Environmental Research Center uses computational methods in some coal combustion studies. They’re working to understand suspected intermediates in coal combustion that are difficult or impossible to study experimentally. He and fellow chemist Kathryn Thomasson, along with EERC researchers Steve Benson, Ed Olson, and Bob Jensen, are examining small model problems using coal mimetic compounds. Once they understand the details of a small system, they plan to look at larger representations of coal.
Hoffmann’s collaborations with Thomasson predate those with the EERC by several years, starting when they decided to examine QM/MM (quantum mechanical/molecular mechanical) problems and received a joint faculty seed grant. The experiment bridges quantum treatment of large and small molecules.
Hoffmann has received continuous funding from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense for his studies of high-energy molecules and related research. His current project, funded by NSF, probes similarities and differences of molecules in intense laser fields. Remarkably, says Hoffmann, in some cases he can obtain different behavior in certain environments, leading to the possibility of localizing energy along a certain motion of a molecule. This, he said, could lead to the possibility of directing chemical reactivity using a laser field. And further into the future is the hope of applying these principles to larger molecules, perhaps repairing genetic damage. His more immediate goal, he said, is to understand the propagation of intense laser light in the atmosphere.
Hoffmann and others have been active in furthering high-performance computing at UND (4| Computing).
As chair of the Department of Chemistry, he is working to further collaboration and connections with the University of Buea in Cameroon. Currently, 12 Buea students are enrolled in UND’s graduate programs, one of the larger international groups on campus. To further the connection, he visited Buea last January and is working on other efforts to increase the globalization of his department.
How does he manage partnerships and productivity?
Hoffmann says that all his efforts fit together: He combines activities, rather than compartmentalizing them. And finding those connections, he says, makes him more efficient — and productive.