back to news Sept. 16, 2013

Ohio State Chemist's Work to Benefit From $20 Million NSF CAICE Grant

While most of the world has been calculating C02 impacts on global climate change, a growing group of scientists like Ohio State chemist Heather Allen are focused elsewhere.

Allen, professor, chemistry and biochemistry, is one of a group of top interdisciplinary researchers from nine universities around the country affiliated with the Center for Aerosol Impacts on Climate and the Environment (CAICE), led by the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).

CAICE researchers study aerosols—miniscule particles suspended in gas, smoke, mist, or fog—whose effects range from seeding clouds that produce rain to making it hard to breathe on a smoggy day.

“Aerosols are a major driver of climate change and have major impacts,” Allen said. “Everyone knows how C02 affects climate change, but with aerosols, their effect depends on their composition, size, surface properties, where they’re located in the environment—especially their inherent ability to scatter light, and clouds—all are variables.”

CAICE, created three years ago as a National Science Foundation NSF Phase I Center for Chemical Innovation, just received a five-year, $20 million Phase II grant from NSF to support innovative research on how interactions between air and sea alter the chemistry of the atmosphere, with focus on aerosols, to influence climate.

“The grant will allow us to expand and accelerate our focus on aerosol research,” Allen said. “Right now, we don’t even know the details of their chemical composition. A liquid droplet is not a mirror of the bulk liquid it came from. This makes aerosols much more complex to evaluate and we can only model climate as good as the data going in.

“This is why it takes a center to tackle the problem—theoreticians, lab and field experimentalists, and new technologies to expand the molecular details and enhance our understanding of such things as how aerosols absorb and reflect sunlight, seed clouds and influence precipitation—and create new information that will improve our ability to predict global climate.”

Allen was requested to join the CAICE team by the UCSD lead scientist Kimberly Prather and was one of a select group of CAICE scientists asked to give information about her work to the NSF awards panel. “It was an honor to be asked and it was an intense responsibility,” Allen said.

“We were one of three finalists for this mega grant and it is testimony to the commitment and quality of work being done and now proposed at the center that we got it. Its importance is enormous; it will allow us to accelerate, expand and direct the focus of one of the largest uncertainties in understanding and modeling climate.”

Allen’s work focuses on four major areas: water at aqueous surfaces; biophysics of lung membranes; cancer detection; and mineral/water interfacial geochemistry.

Her work on aqueous surfaces, funded by NSF, and the work for which she was targeted to join the CAICE team, is providing a molecular-level understanding of water at air/water interfaces, using cutting-edge laser spectroscopic and imaging tools. Air/aqueous interfaces play a key role in many relevant chemical, biological, and environmental (atmospheric and geochemical) processes. In particular, molecular organization can drive reactivity and is directly related to aerosol scattering efficiencies, which are key in climate change research.

“Work made possible by this new grant will attempt to replicate the ocean and aerosol surfaces at the molecular level with information from CAICE I and II studies with real-world complexity, providing detail that current climate change models are lacking,” Allen said.

Allen’s bio-related research includes lung surfactant biophysics and cancer detection. The lung-related research looks at organization of lipids at the air-water interface for application of lung surfactant replacement therapies, leading to treatments for clinically significant diseases such as Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS), and Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS).

The cancer detection work, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is a collaborative project with other chemists, pathologists, and surgical oncologists at Ohio State; this research, for which Allen has an appointment in Ohio State’s Department of Pathology, focuses on novel spectroscopic technology to improve patient survival outcomes that relate to complete surgical removal of cancerous tissues.

The objectives of her geochemistry research, funded by the Department of Energy (DOE) are to develop an approach for predicting metal complexes that form on mineral surfaces by focusing on the role of metal-anion complexation, and, with collaborators, incorporating these surface complexes into thermodynamic surface complexation models to predict adsorption behavior.

Allen has received multiple top national awards for her research accomplishments: an NSF CAREER, a Beckman Young Investigator, an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow, a Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar, and most recently an American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow.