Department of Energy Honors ‘Highly Brilliant’ Chemistry Grad Student

Department of Energy Honors ‘Highly Brilliant’ Chemistry Grad Student

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Grayson Carter Johnson works with things way smaller than the eye can see.

My research is about how to precisely build nanomaterials – particles around the scale of a billionth of a meter – with unique shapes and sizes, and how to assemble these particles into well-ordered, larger-scale structures,” Johnson, a University of Virginia doctoral student in chemistry, said. “By developing nanostructures with high precision, I can examine hypotheses about how their structure relates to different properties for applications such as catalysis, how to transform chemicals with the least amount of energy input; chemical separations, how to purify a particular chemical from a mixture; or photonics, how to manipulate light.”

The U.S. Department of Energy has named Johnson as an outstanding graduate student. The designation will allow him to conduct research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory under Sheng Dai, an expert in materials for energy-related applications.

Johnson is one of 78 awardees from 55 different U.S. universities who will conduct research at 14 national laboratories on topical areas spanning the six DOE Office of Science research programs. These graduate students can spend from three to 12 consecutive months conducting research at a DOE facility, and will receive a monthly stipend for living and travel expenses. The Office of Science provides the funding for the program.

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“DOE has long been where the nation turns for scientific solutions to complex challenges, and now more than ever, we need to invest in a diverse, talented pipeline of scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs who can continue this legacy of excellence,” Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm said. “I’m thrilled that these outstanding students will help us tackle mission-critical research at our labs, and I can’t wait to see what their futures hold.”

“With the opportunity to work with Dr. Dai, I will study a well-ordered assembly of cerium dioxide nanoparticles that we have developed in my work here at UVA,” Johnson said. “You can think of a well-ordered assembly as analogous to a crystal, like sodium chloride, that has regular, repeating units to generate a larger solid. Instead of individual atoms, the nanoparticles are the repeating units. These well-ordered assemblies often have unique properties that result from collective properties of the nanoparticles, and they are typically difficult to generate in large quantities.”

The DOE facilities will give Johnson the opportunity to expand upon what he knows about this material.

“At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, we intend to use the neutron scattering facility to answer important questions as to why these assemblies form so that we can extend the procedure to other types of materials,” he said. “We will also explore these materials as a means of forming mesoporous materials for gas separations, an important technology for waste removal from gas streams for sequestration or concentration for further use.”

Johnson said he enjoys working with nanomaterials because it is highly interdisciplinary.

“It draws upon knowledge from many of the different chemistry and physics disciplines, and the applications range from utility in the energy sector to the field of nanomedicine,” Johnson said. “This gives a lot of room for creativity in the scientific process and it has afforded me the opportunity to collaborate with many research groups across the world and to learn about their work.”

Sen Zhang, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, described Johnson as a “highly brilliant, intuitive and dedicated student.”

“He is a deep thinker and a wonderful team member, and all my team members enjoy working with him,” he said. “He has demonstrated the excellence in using materials chemistry, surface sciences and computational expertise to develop functional nanomaterials for renewable energy applications, including heterogeneous catalysis and gas separation. In looking ahead to his future career, I am certain that Grayson has the vision and creativity to be an innovative scientist and a leader.”

Johnson said he wants to continue in some form of cutting-edge research and he sees this as a good step on his career path.

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“This fellowship allows me to perform experiments at a national laboratory setting with resources that no single school could afford,” Johnson said. “It will offer me the opportunity to collaborate and exchange ideas with a diverse set of scientists from across the states and to build connections that will be invaluable for my future career. Finally, it will allow me to explore the option of research at a national lab as a possible career path.”

A member of Chi Psi and Alpha Chi Sigma, Johnson is president of Chesapeake Bay Governor’s School Education Foundation, a fundraising body that provides assistance for students and teachers at the school to further science and math education in the Tidewater region.

Johnson is honored and excited by the research award.

“There are many talented scientists across this country exploring exciting research, so you can never guarantee that you will receive such an opportunity,” he said. “This vote of confidence motivates me to do my best and to take advantage of the unique facilities that I am being offered.”

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