No special effects here: Chemists' new compound looks like Star Wars ship

2:28:19 PM CDT - Friday, February 03, 2006

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

As WSU chemists Mel Zandler and Francis D'Souza looked at the computer model of their newly created supramolecule that has the potential to harvest sunlight, they thought the image looked familiar. So familiar, they had only to look to the stars Star Wars, that is.

For more than a decade together, D'Souza and Zandler have been doing research in the field of supramolecules, which are formed when two or more molecules join to create a giant supramolecule. The supramolecules they study are formed when an electron stimulated by light is given up, a key step in solar energy conversion.

Courtesy image
The computer model of a supramolecule, left, created by two WSU chemists, bears a remarkable resemblance to a "Star Wars" movie fighter ship, right. The supramolecule was formed when a molecule, stimulated by light, gave up an electron and was bound to another molecule.
While Zandler's McKinley Hall lab is littered with plastic models of supramolecules that the pair have created over the years, none has the unique shape of the one they recently created.

"When we saw the (model), we realized it looked like something we'd seen before," said D'Souza.

Zandler, a devoted Trekkie and longtime sci-fi fan, recognized the model on his computer screen immediately, because he'd already seen it decades before on the big screen as one of the special effects in George Lucas' 1977 blockbuster, "Star Wars," now known as "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope."

The new supramolecule resembles a Star Wars TIE (twin ion engine) fighter ship, the backbone of the Imperial fleet.

When Zandler creates the computer models, he takes the image of the molecules and then shows through graphics where the electron is given up by one of the molecules and the shape of the resulting new supramolecule.

D'Souza, who, along with his team of student researchers, does the instrumentation tests of binding the molecules, said besides having a unique shape, this supramolecule is one of the most efficient in electron transfer that he's produced.

What D'Souza has been trying to do with his research is replicate the natural process of photosynthesis, converting sunlight into chemical energy.

Not only are the implications of this kind of research far-reaching, possibly helping in solar energy conversion, the design of electrical circuits and the development of medicines, but so are the collaborators with whom D'Souza works.

"This is a multi-national, multi-university research project," explained D'Souza, noting he has researchers in Japan and Europe. "We don't have all the equipment here (for the process), because it would cost millions of dollars."

So D'Souza in a sense outsources the testing of his supramolecules. His collaborators at Tohoku University have already tested how fast the electron transfer occurs in the new Star Wars fighter-shaped compound.

At the Notre Dame radiation laboratory, which is a Department of Energy lab, other researchers will see how efficiently the supramolecule converts light into electrical energy.

An article on this new compound has been accepted in an upcoming issue of a journal devoted to the class of molecules this compounds falls within, the Journal of Porphyrins and Phthalocyanines.

The work on this compound has been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the American Chemical Society.

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