Skip navigation

Polymer Science Faculty Member Earns Department of Energy Research Funding

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 14:23pm | By: David Tisdale

Dr. Jason AzoulayA University of Southern Mississippi (USM) faculty member is the recipient of a prestigious U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science’s Early Career Research Program funding award.

Dr. Jason Azoulay, an assistant professor in the School of Polymer Science and Engineering, is one of 76 scientists across the country – 26 from DOE’s national laboratories and 50 from academia – to earn funding from the program for their research efforts. Now in its 11th year, the goal of the Early Career Research Program is to bolster the nation’s scientific workforce through support of exceptional researchers early in their career, when many are engaged in their most formative work.

Under the program, university-based researchers will receive grants for at least $150,000 per year and researchers based at DOE national laboratories will receive grants for at least $500,000 per year. The research grants are planned for five years and cover salary and research expenses. To be eligible, a researcher must be an untenured, tenure-track assistant or associate professor at a U.S. academic institution or a full-time employee at a DOE national laboratory, who received a Ph.D. within the past 10 years.

“The Department of Energy is proud to support funding that will sustain America's scientific workforce, and create opportunities for our researchers to remain competitive on the world stage," said Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar. "By bolstering our commitment to the scientific community, we invest into our nation's next generation of innovators."

Research topics that are supported are required to fall within one of the Department's Office of Science's six major program offices: Advanced Scientific Computing Research, Basic Energy Sciences, Biological and Environmental Research, Fusion Energy Sciences, High Energy Physics, and Nuclear Physics. Dr. Azoulay’s project, “Gold Catalyzed Polymerization Reactions of Unsaturated Substrates: Towards New Functional, Recyclable, and Upcycled Aromatic Polymers” was awarded under Basic Energy Sciences (Catalysis Science).

The goal of Dr. Azoulay’s project is the development of new patterns of catalytic reactivity and methods for the synthesis of aromatic polymers using Homogeneous Gold (Au) Catalysis (HGC). Synthetic strategies will be developed to polymerize monomers based on unsaturated precursors and access novel polymeric materials through the extension of Au catalyzed intermolecular processes.

According to Dr. Azoulay, aromatic polymers constitute a ubiquitous class of commodity and specialty “plastics,” given that aromatic and pseudo-aromatic rings in the polymer backbone impart robust mechanical, chemical, and thermal properties.

“There remains a pressing need to create new technologies that cannot be accommodated within the scope of traditional polymerization reactions that revolutionize the lifecycle of plastics, utilize unusable industrial and consumer waste, and which reduce environmental impacts,” he said.

Specific objectives of the research project include (1) the extension of Au catalyzed intermolecular reactions to bifunctional monomers; (2) to gain fundamental mechanistic insight into Au-catalyzed polymerizations; (3) the application of these reactions to the synthesis of new classes of aromatic polymers that can be readily and/or selectively deconstructed; and (4) to apply these chemistries to the upcycling of post-industrial plastics and post-consumer waste. These results will provide many of the first examples of HGC in the field of polymer science, and provide the foundational knowledge needed to design new chemical reactions, catalysts, processes, and materials. In turn, this will enable efficient chemical syntheses from commercial feed stocks which are currently unusable, new de-polymerization approaches for circular processing, and chemical upcycling strategies.

After earning his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), Dr. Azoulay held postdoctoral fellowships at the Center for Polymers and Organic Solids at UCSB (2010-2011) and at Sandia National Laboratories (2011-2014) in electronic and photonic materials research. He joined the USM faculty in 2014, where his research group focuses on homogeneous and heterogeneous catalysis; electronic, photonic, and magnetic materials; and multidisciplinary investigations that address large scale objectives in materials development.

“Dr. Azoulay is an innovative scientist, and this prestigious DOE Early Career Award recognizes the originality of his ideas and the potential impact of his proposed work on the development of gold catalyst systems,” said Dr. Derek Patton, director of the School of Polymer Science and Engineering. “These catalytic systems are aimed at improving the recyclability and reusability of plastics that otherwise end up in waste streams for landfills or incinerators. His work aligns well with historical and ongoing efforts in materials sustainability within the School of Polymer Science and Engineering.

“With development of appropriate catalytic processes, there are tremendous opportunities – in both environmental and economic – to convert or upcycle discarded plastics into building blocks for new materials, rather than more poorly managed waste streams. I am excited to see the innovative developments from Dr. Azoulay and his research group in this direction.”

For information about the School of Polymer Science and Engineering, visit https://www.usm.edu/polymer-science-engineering/index.php.