Rachel Getman of Clemson University has won the nation’s top award for early-career researchers and will use the $500,000 her team received to explore new ways of making a chemical that helps feed about half the world but remains out of reach in the poorest regions.

Getman, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, received the funding as part of the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program.

Rachel Getman points at a computer screen while working with her team.

Rachel Getman points at a computer screen while working with her team.

The team’s long-term goal is to find a new way of making ammonia using water instead of hydrogen gas. Ammonia is used in commercial fertilizers to improve crop yields and has been crucial in sustaining the world’s population boom over the last century.

The current method of making ammonia, the Haber-Bosch process, was developed in 1909 and involves reacting two gases, nitrogen and hydrogen, at high temperature and pressure. It’s energy intensive and expensive.

“Agriculture has expanded significantly, but only in parts of the world that can afford the Haber-Bosch process,” Getman said. “The poorer regions of the world that can’t afford to pressurize these gases are not benefitting.”

Hydrogen gas is less than ideal as a reactant because it’s an expensive commodity that is difficult to produce, separate and store.

Meanwhile, water is plentiful and eliminates the need for high temperature and pressure in ammonia production. With water, ammonia can be formed in the same ambient conditions that are found in a typical home or office.

Some energy is still required, although not as much as is needed for the Haber-Bosch process.

“The reaction between nitrogen and water to form ammonia is endothermic, which means it’s energetically uphill,” Getman said. “That means it’s not going to happen unless energy is inputted to the system.

“We propose to do that through electrocatalysis. Energy is imparted into a catalyst. If the catalyst is a metal, it can be charged up, and the charge helps cause bonds to break and bonds to form.”

Douglas E. Hirt, chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, congratulated Getman on her award.

“The NSF CAREER award is one of the nation’s most prestigious honors for researchers early in their careers,” Hirt said. “It affirms that Dr. Getman is one of the nation’s most outstanding junior faculty members and that she exemplifies the role of teacher-scholar. This is a well-deserved honor, and we’re glad to have Dr. Getman at Clemson.”

Other researchers have shown that platinum can be used as a catalyst that electrocatalytically converts nitrogen and liquid water to ammonia. As part of the NSF-funded study, the Getman team will begin developing thermodynamic and kinetic models on the computer to understand why.

It takes a huge amount of computing power that has been possible only in the last two or three decades. The Getman team will use Clemson’s Palmetto Cluster, one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers.

“At a fundamental level, we want to determine how platinum is working,” Getman said. “To do that, we have to understand not only how platinum converts reactants into products but how platinum works electrocatalytically under an aqueous phase environment.

“The theories to do that do not presently exist. The first five years of the project will be basically hammering out how to calculate the thermodynamic quantities and the kinetic quantities for reactions occurring on this platinum surface.”

Also as part of the grant, Getman will develop educational materials that involve molecular simulations for graduate and undergraduate students. Those materials will be put on a website with instructions for how educators can incorporate them into their courses.

Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering and Science, said that Getman’s award adds to a growing number of NSF CAREER awardees at Clemson.

“Congratulations to Dr. Getman,” he said. “Her award is a testament to her hard work and creative ideas. The funding will help her set up a program that has maximum impact not only over the next five years, but over her entire career. This is well-deserved.”


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under award number 1554385. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.