A member of the Department of Chemistry faculty in the University of Minnesota's College of Science and Engineering, Lu explores how metals can be used as catalysts to coax molecules into undergoing reactions that wouldn't normally happen in nature. She remembers vividly as a sophomore in college watching a metal-containing molecule split dinitrogen into two nitrogen atoms - a feat not unlike bench-pressing 500 pounds.
"It just really captured my interest that metals could be used to activate small molecules," she said. She's been finding new ways for them them to do that ever since.
With the help of an early career grant from IonE's Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, Lu is now applying her interest and expertise to developing metal-containing catalysts that could help convert CO2 into methanol, a building block for biofuels, with a relatively low energy input.
The trick, she believes, is to use two metal atoms bonded together rather than just one as the catalyst. Easier said than done, however.
"Metal-metal bonds are unusual. They don't really exist in nature," Lu says. So she's making her own, by building molecular "scaffolds" - frameworks metals can fit into that juxtapose them closely enough to bond with each other.
Lu and her students have already developed a functional scaffold, and are now using it to make a library of metal-metal pairs, with a focus on abundant (and therefore inexpensive) metals. They'll be looking at the properties of each - and eventually, they hope, find one that can handle the CO2 - methanol conversion in a relatively energy-efficient way.
Lu loves making new molecules for their own sake. The prospect of a planet-saving application is a big bonus.
"I think it's the act of creation that's ultimately the most fun for me and my students," she says. "[But] we're happy to know we're making them for a good purpose, that they will ultimately be useful."
Image courtesy of Connie Lu