UH Chemist One of America's Rising Stars in Science

Lubchenko writing on chalkboard

A University of Houston chemist has been honored as one of America’s most promising young scientists for research that ultimately could lead to breakthroughs in solar cells and memory devices like flash drives.

Vassiliy Lubchenko, an assistant professor of chemistry who researches the electronic structure of amorphous materials – a category that includes glass, porcelain and plastics – was one of only 16 recipients of the coveted Beckman Young Investigator Award. The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation announced the 2008 winners this month.

The award is given to young faculty in the life sciences engaged in the most innovative research – those with the potential to achieve major advances in their fields. Lubchenko was among a select group that included scientists from Columbia University, the University of California at Berkeley and other renowned institutions.

He will use the three-year, $300,000 grant that comes with the award to tackle one of chemistry’s most difficult and fascinating puzzles. Very little is known about the underlying physics and chemistry of electrical properties of amorphous materials. While scientists have understood crystalline materials – such as rocks and most metals- for decades, only recently have scientists appreciated how amorphous materials form.

The molecular structure of an amorphous solid is similar to that of a liquid, Lubchenko said. Their atoms are not arranged in a periodic fashion and because of the unique properties of these materials, chemists do not understand how they conduct electrical charges. The inability to control and predict the materials’ optical and electrical properties limits their use in photovoltaic devices such as solar cells and in information processing and storage.

“We don’t know the sources of electric charge carriers in an amorphous material and we can’t predict how many charge carriers it will have or how much resistance from the material the resulting current will experience,” Lubchenko said.

Cracking the mystery of amorphous and disordered materials would pave the way for their use in solar batteries, dramatically improving the efficiency of these devices. Amorphous materials, such as the chalcogenides used in rewritable CDs, also have potential to greatly expand the speed and capacity of computer memory.

The applications may be high-tech, but to solve the puzzle of electrical phenomena in amorphous materials Lubchenko will rely heavily on pencil and paper. The molecular motions underlying the formation of these materials are too slow for present-day computer technology.

Lubchenko is a theoretical physical chemist, which means he does not spend much time in a lab. Instead, he takes the raw data from researchers in a lab and crunches formulas and numbers so that he can not only explain what happened, but predict what will occur in future experiments.

Lubchenko is not the only Beckman Award winner on UH’s chemistry faculty. Assistant Professor Shiv Halasyamani was a 2002 recipient.

Lubchenko’s award comes just weeks after another young chemistry faculty member, Olafs Daugulis, was named an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow.

“We are very proud to have Vas as a colleague,” said David Hoffman, chemistry department chair. “Vas’ award is another indication that our faculty competes very well for national awards and recognition.”

The award money will allow Lubchenko to hire a postdoctoral researcher and two graduate students to assist him with his work.

The young investigator award is open to faculty members in the life sciences who are in the first three years of a tenure-track position. Lubchenko, a Ukranian native, received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Although Lubchenko’s work involves lots of complex math, he also has an artistic side. He is active in an amateur Russian theatre group in Houston and will play the lead role in a musical comedy this month.