Sara Thoi, an associate professor in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Chemistry and a core researcher for the Ralph O’Connor Sustainable Energy Institute (ROSEI), has received the American Chemical Society (ACS)’s Harry Gray Award for Creative Work in Inorganic Chemistry by a Young Investigator.
The award recognizes creative and impactful work by a young investigator in a forefront area of inorganic chemistry. It is a distinguished part of ACS’s annual National Awards and is among the few that commend the achievements of younger faculty members. The award is named for Harry Gray, the Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry at California Institute of Technology (Caltech), who is renowned for his pioneering work in bioinorganic electron transfer chemistry.
“I’m a big fan of Harry Gray! I was Harry’s student host years ago when he visited UC Berkeley while I was there for graduate school, so I am incredibly humbled and honored to receive this award in his namesake,” Thoi said. “This award recognizes that the research conducted by the student and postdoctoral researchers in my group is important and innovative. I’m very grateful for their dedication and support.”
Thoi and her group focus on two main areas of research. The first is catalysis, which involves developing new systems that can convert abundant chemical feedstocks into valuable products. A key example is using renewable electricity to convert carbon dioxide into useful energy-relevant molecules such as carbon monoxide, formate, methane, and ethylene.
Thoi’s other research area is lithium sulfur battery storage, which aims to improve the reliability, portability, durability, and modularity of current battery technology. Recently, the group shifted its focus from examining the sulfur aspect of these batteries to the lithium component. The objective is to stabilize it and prevent battery fires.
“The surface of lithium starts off smooth, but over time, it can develop a rough, prickly texture. This indicates that the lithium metal is wearing away, leading to inefficient or dangerous battery performance. It can either form inactive materials, reducing battery efficiency, or puncture the battery material, causing a short circuit and potential hazards like overheating or even explosions,” explained Thoi. “Our goal is to find a way to keep that surface smooth, which will help address and minimize these safety issues.”
Thoi’s focus is on understanding chemical interactions rather than solely on developing new catalysts or batteries, like most researchers in the field.
“We aim to really understand the fundamental chemistry behind how these materials are created,” Thoi said. “This allows us to have fundamental insights so people can make leaps in the future.”
Thoi will be recognized at a formal award ceremony, where she will deliver a presentation on her research, at the next ACS National Meeting in March 2024 in New Orleans. A symposium in Thoi’s name will also be held in New Orleans in honor of her exceptional work in energy.