ASU professor will synthesize new materials with NSF CAREER award

Christina Birkel and her group are diligently working to create new materials that can be used for renewable energy, catalysts and permanent magnets

December 10, 2021

Assistant Professor Christina Birkel, an inorganic chemist from Arizona State University’s School of Molecular Sciences, has recently earned a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation.

Birkel and her group are diligently working to create new materials that can be used for renewable energy, catalysts and permanent magnets. Christina Birkel Christina Birkel is an inorganic chemist and an assistant professor in the School of Molecular Sciences at ASU. Photo by Mary Zhu/ASU Download Full Image

“I am very excited that our group has been selected for this award, and I am grateful to all team members who played an essential part in making this happen and to the National Science Foundation for funding our future projects around MAX phases and MXenes,” Birkel said.

Professor Tijana Rajh, director of the School of Molecular Sciences, which is part of The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said, “Christina Birkel and her group are doing extremely innovative molecular science, developing new solid-state materials. Our younger faculty members in the School of Molecular Sciences have an extraordinary record of achievement, and Professor Birkel is an exemplar in this regard.”

The prestigious CAREER program supports the early career development activities of teacher-scholars who most effectively integrate research and education within the mission of their organization. It provides five-year research grants to each recipient.

Making new materials

In this age of machine learning and data-driven research, a plethora of possible materials are being investigated, but synthesizing them in the lab, especially in the solid state, is often anything but straightforward.

Making new types of materials is at the heart of this award. Materials are all around us and are the driving force for new and innovative solid-state technologies centered on batteries, sensors and magnets.

The discovery of new and better materials, together with understanding their characteristics, such as their structure and properties, and how these factors can be tuned during their preparation are of utmost importance.

In this project, the Birkel group will focus on solid compounds that contain different metals and either carbon, nitrogen or both, called carbides, nitrides or carbonitrides, respectively. They offer a huge playground for the discovery of new types of materials with useful properties since they can (i) mix and match different elements, and (ii) produce them in different shapes.

Birkel started out years ago working on oxides and metallic chalcogenides, and recently her group has been very active in the field of carbides (so-called MAX phases). Solid-state microwave heating (using domestic and industrial ovens) is an excellent technique to focus on to synthesize carbides. Beautifully layered crystal structures are produced.

The Birkel group performs a lot of electron microscopy, X-ray diffraction and structural analysis on these materials. They are very special in that these materials can be exfoliated, that is, one layer of “A” elements in the structure (usually aluminum) can be etched out very selectively and you can end up with 2D materials (so-called MXenes). 2D materials are macroscopic in two dimensions and nanoscopic in the third. These materials have many potential applications.

Birkel is pushing their MAX phase research to make entirely new chemical compositions and shapes — for example, wires, spheres and hollow spheres. These compounds will have unique mechanical behaviors, such as self-healing at higher temperatures, as well as behaving in an interesting way magnetically.

Having hollow spheres, films and wires available paves the way for new uses of these materials. One can, for example, envision a way to integrate the wires into fabrics and produce wearable electronics that monitor sweat levels or produce energy on the go.  

Birkel group

The Birkel group in the School of Molecular Sciences: (from left) Jan Paul Siebert, Andreas Reitz, Christina Birkel, Rose Snyder, Jordan Sinclair, John Jamboretz and Andrew Wasserbeck. Photo by Lauren Tackett/ASU

Furthermore, the team can break these layered solids down into atomically thin sheets, which are thinner than one-billionth of a meter. Reaching this size regime enables special physical phenomena that are not accessible in the larger structures. Different reactions can be catalyzed on their surfaces; for example, the production of hydrogen gas from water, which has big implications for renewable and cleaner energy production.

Where the 2D materials are concerned, it’s important to discover how the surface chemistry evolves during the exfoliation process. How can they manipulate the surface chemistry, and ultimately how does that influence the catalytic properties?

Future results from Birkel’s group are awaited, as they are utilizing powerful and innovative techniques for the production of many inorganic compounds despite the fact that there are many complications to solve along the way.

Jenny Green

Clinical associate professor, School of Molecular Sciences


ASU teacher-in-residence elected VP of American Association of Physics Teachers

December 10, 2021

Arizona State University Teacher-In-Residence Kelli Warble has been elected vice president of the American Association of Physics Teachers.

The American Association of Physics Teachers is a national organization composed of high school and college-level physics instructors to share ways to advance physics through education. Warble is currently a teacher-in-residence at ASU’s Department of Physics. Since becoming a member of the association, Warble has worked on initiatives such as the Step Up project, which encourages young women to go into physics education. In addition, she co-designed the Master Teacher Policy Fellowship, which brings physics teachers from around the country to Washington, D.C., to advocate for physics education in their home states. Kelli Warble Download Full Image

Warble feels she was selected for the position due to all of her activities, but she thanks the department for support.

“All of it probably started with the support of the ASU physics department early in my career that got me involved in these kinds of activities. So it all really originates here, from the support that I get from ASU physics,” she said.

Warble feels that the pandemic has resulted in a lot of turmoil in education, and she wants to work toward a solution as the association's vice president.

“When I talk to my fellow physics teachers from throughout the country, we don't necessarily want to return to normal after the pandemic because normal, unfortunately, in physics, we don't have inclusiveness and representation from a lot of students,” Warble said. “So, there's a lot of students that are filtered out of getting a physics education, and so we're looking forward to how can we leverage some of the things we learned from the pandemic to get a wider cross section of students to have a high-quality physics education available to them in their area, which is not an easy task.”

Warble said these are difficult challenges up ahead but that she looks forward to tackling them.

“These are sticky problems, the path is uncertain and the solutions are non-trivial. But I know my fellow teachers and colleagues in the AAPT and have been amazed again and again by what we can achieve when we work together as a community,” Warble wrote in her vice president election candidacy bio.

Patricia Rankin, Department of Physics chair, is excited for Warble’s promotion.

“We benefit immensely in the department from having Kelli around to help us expand our reach. We look forward to seeing what she does next. The American Association for Physics Teachers plays an important role, and Kelli will help the organization succeed,” Rankin said.

Kiersten Moss

Marketing Assistant, Department of Physics