Louis A. Madsen, assistant professor of chemistry in the College of Science and the Macromolecules and Interfaces Institute at Virginia Tech, has earned a $475,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award.

Madsen’s research focuses on improving advanced polymers for fuel cells and reverse-osmosis water purification by combining detailed analysis of these materials with theoretical understanding.

“Water and energy represent our most pressing needs for sustainable life on this planet,” Madsen said. “Hydrogen fuel cells form a promising link in future sustainable energy production and distribution cycles, while clean water needs worldwide are putting increased demand on advanced purification techniques. Advanced polymers can fill these roles, but require further development to come into everyday use.”

CAREER awards are made to outstanding young faculty members who present career development plans that effectively integrate research and education, with an emphasis on combining the excitement of research with inspired teaching. The CAREER program offers the NSF’s most prestigious awards for outstanding faculty early in their profession.

Madsen’s research will focus on revealing new and pivotal aspects of charged polymers used in water purification and in fuel cells.

“We currently do not have a detailed picture of how small molecules and ions travel inside these polymer membranes, only a vague sketch,” Madsen said. For example, we do not understand exactly how key components such as water travel inside these membranes. We know that water travels in some sort of nanometer-size channels. My research will focus on how collective arrangements and alignments of these channels influence proton conductivity in a fuel cell, or water/salt separation efficiency.”

In order to understand the mechanisms for these materials’ behavior in depth and improve performance, Madsen will apply a range of magnetic resonance, electron microscopy, and computer modeling techniques. He is adapting and improving cutting-edge magnetic resonance techniques to studies of advanced polymers.

Madsen’s project plan encompasses education of promising university students and will build an outreach program specifically for girls in elementary school and their parents.

“The program aims to build strong future scientists from a group still under-utilized in today’s workforce, he said.”

Madsen earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology, where he worked on fundamental advances to nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and imaging. He conducted postdoctoral work at the University of North Carolina and joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 2006.

The Department of Chemistry is part of the College of Science. For more news from the college see College of Science News.

Read the related University Spotlight, "Virginia Tech faculty members make a success of CAREER."