Chemist manipulates molecules to sense and store some of the most harmful gases affecting the environment
What meets the eye in Dmitry Rudkevich’s office has much to do with why this organic chemistry professor dreams of improving the world through what can’t be seen.
A wall in his Baker Chemistry Research Building office is devoted, floor to ceiling, to technical books and periodicals. On the wall behind his desk, thumbtacks hold maps of the United States and the world, a nod to his love of “knowing where things are.” Completing the wall art is a recent drawing by 9-year-old Dmitry Jr.
Nearby, a small framed photograph captures a quiet ceremony last March, when Rudkevich and his wife became American citizens. He beams as he details the achievement. It marked not only the capstone of his new life after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but also his transition to the way he researches as an American.
“I used to research in Russian. Now I think scientifically and analyze in English,” he said. “This is sort of a second life for me.”
This second time around centers on supramolecular chemistry—which is all about speaking another language, too. While some describe the field as the intense study of how molecules interact, the amiable chemist likens it to molecules “talking” to each other.
He has good reason to get certain molecules on speaking terms: They can be modified to sense and store some of the most dangerous gases affecting the environment.
“We study how molecules talk to each other, how they recognize each other, before they form bonds,” he said. “This field of exploration has been around 30 years, but no one has ever applied the concepts to handle gases until now. What we’re doing is using supramolecular chemistry to make new materials from gases, for the storage and release of gases.”
Along the way, Rudkevich has become an environmental advocate. Imagine the air around you right now, he urges his students and colleagues. Mixed with all the good molecules are sulphur dioxide, the primary culprit for acid rain, and nitrogen oxide compounds from spent fuel. Increases in carbon dioxide, or greenhouse gases, remain the primary suspect in global warming over the last century, accelerating melting polar ice caps and the formation of violent weather patterns.
“Here’s what we do: We learn first how to make molecules that can attract each particular gas; we go to the lab and make these molecules,” Rudkevich said. “Then we study how they interact.”
These uniquely created molecules will help detect unhealthy gases and then capture them, he says. The best part is that understanding how these molecules cooperate enables reversing their roles easily and inexpensively, a must in industry.
Rudkevich holds up a translucent purple gel in a tube. A few moments before, it existed as a benign molecule in his lab, sensing the air around it. One of his students turns a knob, introducing a noxious stream of nitrogen dioxide, much like automobile exhaust. Instantly, the gel turns a vibrant purple.
In other applications, similar molecules can be changed to create gas storage structures called synthetic nanotubes. Rudkevich believes they can be used to capture and store greenhouse gases or other unhealthy fumes, separating them from the air we breathe, once and for all.
“Beautiful,” he says, eyeing his colorful creation, as well as the possibilities it represents. “Can you imagine making polymers from gases? We know how to make the necessary materials from carbon dioxide. For the environment, this is very green chemistry.”
Another application Rudkevich sees for his tailor-made molecules is safer, more precise delivery of medication, thanks to more intelligent molecules that react only when needed. Such efforts have attracted national attention for Rudkevich and his UT Arlington lab.
“As far as I know, he’s the only one in the supramolecular chemistry field trying to deal with these gases in this way,” said Harry Gibson, a professor of chemistry at Virginia Tech who has followed Rudkevich’s work for more than a decade since the two met at a NATO conference. “Without question, his expertise in this area will make him quite a star within the next five to 10 years.”
It is this pioneering quest that brought Rudkevich to UT Arlington nearly five years ago from the Scripps Research Institute. Before that, he held a fellow position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Today he is an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow, a prestigious designation awarded to the nation’s top young faculty members.
Sizable funding has come from the National Science Foundation, the Texas Advanced Technology Program and the Petroleum Research Fund. Yet Rudkevich doesn’t linger on such laurels. He’s more impressed with the 10 undergraduate students who have benefited from involvement in his lab, not to mention the seven graduate students and four postdoctoral researchers.
“Every student has his or her own gas to study, and then they can create their own molecules,” he said. “As teachers and researchers, we have to educate young people; we have to get them ready for research and industrial work.
“In our lab, they are learning right now about nanotechnology, environmental protections ... and to make something beneficial that nature couldn’t make. That’s an incredible opportunity for them, and an incredible responsibility for each of us.
— David Van Meter