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NEWS | June 30, 2011

NRL's Debra Rolison Honored with ACS Award in the Chemistry of Materials

By Donna McKinney

Dr. Debra R. Rolison, a physical chemist at the Naval Research Laboratory, has received one of the American Chemical Society National Awards. In being honored with the 2011 Award in the Chemistry of Materials, she is recognized for expanding the scientific and technological frontier of nanostructured materials, especially those important for energy generation and storage.

Rolison has made major contributions to the chemistry of materials, according to Dr. Roald Hoffmann, Nobel prize winner and professor emeritus of humane letters in Cornell University's chemistry and chemical biology department. A leitmotif of her work is her lack of fear of complexity and the absence of order in matter, he adds. In fact, Rolison's strong point is her intelligent approach to complicated properties in forms of matter that most scientists would prefer to ignore.

According to Dr. John Russell, Jr., Head of the NRL Surface Chemistry Branch, Debra revised our picture of energy-relevant interfaces to one that is more nuanced and acknowledges their typically disordered reality. While these systems are an analytical challenge, the physical and chemical information she has pried from them provides her with valuable insight into the design of higher performance electrochemical devices.

Dr. Mark Ratner, a chemistry professor at Northwestern University, says that Debra uniquely combines nanoscience, inorganic chemistry, electrochemistry, and materials chemistry to make new systems with unique and controllable properties.

Rolison's research involves the design, synthesis, characterization, and application of nanostructured materials for catalysis, energy storage and conversion, biomolecular composites, porous magnets, and sensors. She is being honored in particular for developing novel, multifunctional, ultraporous materials for battery, fuel-cell, and sensing technologies and for her fundamental studies into structure-property relationships of nanostructured materials.

Aerogels, which are highly porous, nanostructured networks, represent one important class of materials Rolison has investigated. She has turned aerogel studies-a field that had long suffered from a lack of new ideas-into a fresh and innovative area of exploration, says Dr. Stephanie L. Brock, professor of chemistry at Wayne State University.

Prior to Rolison's intervention in the mid-'90s, research was predominantly focused on the insulating applications of silica aerogels, Brock explains. Rolison's recognition that the marriage of three-dimensional connected nanostructure with 3-D connected nanoscale porosity could be ideal for applications in electrochemistry, catalysis, and separations-provided that the inherent properties of the oxide nanostructure could be altered-was a critical development for aerogel researchers and those interested in designing functional nanostructures.Dr. Rolison developed a variety of synthetic procedures to incorporate metal clusters into aerogels. These composites have electronic, electrochemical, and catalytic properties which in many ways surpass those of crystalline solids, Hoffmann says.

Rolison also adapted tiny aggregates of metal atoms incorporated in zeolites-ordered silicate minerals that are full of precisely spaced and sized pores-for electrocatalysis. It turns out that while these metal-spotted zeolites are exceedingly good catalysts, the metal specks can act as electrodes, Hoffmann says.

In other work, Rolison devised a way to alter electrode morphology to extend battery life. She also designed a mild oxidative protocol that is more effective than conventional catalysts at removing organosulfur from petroleum distillates, which could aid producers in meeting the Environmental Protection Agency's limits on sulfur content in fuel, Hoffmann notes.

Russell noted Debra's research program demonstrates how a fundamental effort to design and characterize nanostructured mesoporous platforms, such as aerogels, when complemented by the analysis of real surfaces and practical nanomaterials, translates to improvements in the properties of technologically relevant materials and to the redesign of high-performance materials, devices, and chemical reactors.

Rolison earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry at Florida Atlantic University in 1975 and a doctorate in chemistry at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, under Dr. Royce W. Murray in 1980. She joined NRL as a research chemist later that year. She is currently head of the Chemistry Division's Advanced Electrochemical Materials section and adjunct full professor of chemistry at the University of Utah.

Her other honors include election as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Materials Research Society (inaugural class), and the Association for Women in Science, and. She is a recipient of two ACS Division awards: the R.A. Glenn (2007 - Fuel Chemistry Division) and the A.K. Doolittle (2009 - Division of Polymer Materials: Science and Engineering). Rolison was also honored with the Sigma Xi-NRL Edison Chapter's Pure Science Award?the first woman to do since inauguration of this award in 1955. She has served on a number of editorial advisory boards.

Rolison presented her award address before the Division of Inorganic Chemistry in Anaheim, CA; the content is online at

The ACS National Awards Program is one of the means by which the Society meets its obligation to encourage...the advancement of chemistry in all its branches, the promotion of research in chemical science and industry, [and] the improvement of the qualifications and usefulness of chemists. Rolison is the third NRL employee to receive an ACS National Award. Drs. William Zisman and Isabella Karle were each doubly honored by the ACS National Award Program.

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