Chemistry graduate student awarded NatureNet Science Fellowship

image of Robert HigginsColorado State University chemistry graduate student Robert Higgins was recently named a NatureNet Science Fellow. This program selects promising early career scientists focused on helping to solve the world’s unprecedented challenges with climate change for two years of fellowship support. The NatureNet Science Fellows Program partners with universities around the country to discover and implement new interdisciplinary science while working toward the advancement of new conservation efforts.

Higgins, a member of the Shores lab graduating with his Ph.D. in summer 2018, was chosen from among hundreds of applicants from top universities worldwide. Using green chemistry, he has been directing his efforts to improve and expand his research in effort to better our world.

Green chemistry: halting climate change for the future

Using electronic structure to probe reaction mechanizms and magnetic properties research slide

Higgins has been working on reactivity with earth abundant photocatalysts in Professor Matthew Shores’ lab since 2013. These methods developed Higgins’ interest in green chemistry. This provided a straightforward connection to his interest in the NatureNet Science Fellowship, which is centered around novel and earth-friendly scientific procedures. In his five years in the lab, Higgins has had the freedom to pursue research interests with independence while gaining from Shores’ insights as an advisor and mentor. He is also grateful to other members of the Shores group for being supporting and great colleagues.

During his two-year fellowship program, Higgins will be working with Eric Schelter at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Chemistry. For his proposed project, Higgins will conduct research that focuses on halting climate change but also on adaptation toward climate change. Halting climate change, one of the overarching themes to the fellowship, aims to create and develop research to act quickly and aggressively toward a low-carbon energy system. The project that Higgins and Schelter will be working on is titled “Green Chemistry that Contributes to a Sustainable Supply Chain for Rare Earth Metals.” The mining, refining and purification of metals such as rare earths – which are important components in many devices today – are extraordinarily energy-intensive and waste-generating processes that create severe environmental burdens. Higgins and Schelter will be looking at more efficient and greener processes for metal separations along with the evaluation of the comparative economics of these more sustainable processes with existing technologies. Higgins’ specific project will look at the separation of these elements through exploitation of their intrinsic magnetic properties.

Higgins explains that “rare earths, which are the elements scandium, yttrium and the lanthanides, are used for all sorts of applications – memory devices, wind turbines, et cetera – and are therefore necessary in everyday life,” he said. “The most expensive and environmentally damaging step to obtain pure rare earths is separation from one another. The proposed methods would lessen the environmental impact of these separation steps.”

Once in a lifetime opportunity

Higgins has followed Schelter’s research for some time. “I’ve known about Eric Schelter’s science for a while and have a lot of respect for his work,” Higgins said. When he saw a message from Schelter’s research group on Twitter about potential applications for this fellowship, he thought it would be a great fit for a post-doctoral appointment. Higgins has performed research with actinide metals (primarily uranium) that react similarly to rare earths, which helped him stand out from the other candidates. Further, most of his Ph.D. work in CSU’s Department of Chemistry has focused on earth abundant complexes for photoredox catalysis that use light to accelerate reactions, which has given him a background in performing green chemistry. Looking ahead to his upcoming fellowship, Higgins said, “This gives me an opportunity to work with great scientists while performing environmentally friendly chemistry.”

This fellowship program will provide new possibilities for Higgins’ future. When asked what this meant to him, he said that, “I think it’s important to have some focus on smaller picture ideas. So, I hope I can be challenged daily with research questions and potentially provide future researchers, or industrial workers, with less environmentally taxing methods for rare earth separations.”

Higgins was born in New York City but spent most of his upbringing in McLean, Virginia, a suburb of Washington D.C. He obtained his bachelor’s degree from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. After graduating, he moved to Fort Collins for graduate school in the College of Natural Sciences. Higgins enjoys drinking craft beer, playing card or board games and spending time with his family. When asked what his future goals are, he said “I am not sure what I want to do yet. As long as I am mentally stimulated about interesting problems in synthetic chemistry I will be happy.”