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MacArthur Fellow William Dichtel to Join Northwestern

Organic chemist has developed materials for water purification and energy storage
  • ‘Leading figure in chemistry’ is a pioneer in porous polymers
  • ‘Northwestern is premier destination for materials research,’ Dichtel says
  • Looks forward to collaborating with world-class faculty at Northwestern
  • New materials might help batteries charge in seconds instead of minutes, hours

EVANSTON, Ill. --- MacArthur Fellow and organic chemist William R. Dichtel will join Northwestern University as a professor of chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, the University announced today. 

Dichtel is a rising star working in new materials at the nanoscale. He is committed to bringing his discoveries out of the lab and into daily use. Dichtel’s pioneering work developing porous polymers known as covalent organic frameworks (COFs) has applications to water purification, batteries and other energy storage. 

His innovations one day might lead to batteries that can charge in seconds rather than minutes or hours, materials that rapidly remove pollutants from water, and systems that can detect explosives in the air.

“In addition to his tremendous accomplishments and vision in research, Will is a committed and innovative teacher,” said Peter C. Stair, chair of Northwestern’s chemistry department and the John G. Searle Professor of Chemistry. “The undergraduates will love him. He is a spectacular addition to the chemistry department and Northwestern.”

Dichtel, currently an associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Cornell University, will join Northwestern this summer. 

“Northwestern is a premier destination for materials research,” Dichtel said. “I look forward to collaborating with world-class faculty in chemistry, materials science and other disciplines. My research team’s expertise in organic and polymer chemistry will contribute further strength in these areas and bring about new collaborations across the University.”

The MacArthur Foundation named Dichtel a MacArthur Fellow last year, saying his “pioneering demonstration of COFs with unprecedented functionality and improved stability have made him a leading figure in chemistry.” He describes his research in a 2015 MacArthur Foundation video.

Dichtel’s work transcends the limitations of the original COFs by introducing “functional monomers” that are, for example, capable of absorbing visible light into COF structures. By doing so, Dichtel has opened the door to using COFs in applications such as photovoltaic devices and batteries.

Polymers with many small pores exhibit enormous surfaces areas -- as much as that of a football field in an amount of material weighing as little as a dollar bill -- enable researchers to store gaseous fuels, rapidly transport ions, immobilize catalysts and modify their selectivity, detect trace substances, and remove contaminants from liquid or gas streams. Polymers with uniform pores ranging in size from 1 to 5 nanometers can be derived from monomers that organize into two- or three-dimensional grids known as covalent organic frameworks, Dichtel explains.

He has developed simple and straightforward methods to grow COFs as thin films on working electrodes, which led to the first materials capable of storing and releasing electrical charge. For this application, the precise, layered arrangement of building blocks and continuous pores provided by the COF architecture contribute to their performance.

An alternative strategy to introduce small voids into polymers is to use building blocks that can’t pack efficiently. This approach of Dichtel’s has resulted in polymers derived from renewable raw materials that rapidly remove organic pollutants from water and detect explosives present at parts-per-trillion levels.

In addition to the MacArthur Fellowship, Dichtel has received many distinguished honors during his career. They include the National Fresenius Award from the Phi Lambda Upsilon National Chemistry Honor Society, the Polymer International – IUPAC Award for Creativity in Applied Polymer Science, the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, an Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award from the American Chemical Society, a Cottrell Scholar Award from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the Sloan Research Fellowship and a Beckman Young Investigator Award from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation.

Before joining Cornell in 2008, he held a joint postdoctoral appointment with Sir Fraser Stoddart, then with the University of California, Los Angeles and now with Northwestern, and James R. Heath at the California Institute of Technology. Dichtel received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, under the mentorship of Jean M. J. Fréchet, in 2005 and his Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2000.