Imagine a material so porous that little more than a gram of it contained the same surface area as a football field.
It sounds like the kind of made-up miracle substances you usually hear discussed solely in the realms of sci-fi or comic books, like Adamantium, Unobtanium, or Nth metal — The kind of elemental MacGuffins that exist to explain away the fantastic powers of those that use them. The primary difference is that supramolecular chemist Will Dichtel has taken his material out of the world of science fiction. In fact, he’s on the verge of taking this and other revolutionary nanomaterials out of the lab and giving them practical real-world applications that could potentially change our planet for the better.
A scientist currently attached to Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, and previously Cornell University, Will was recently awarded a MacArthur fellowship for his research into these porous polymers (called covalent organic frameworks) and their potentially revolutionary uses in the fields of water filtration, chemical fuel storage, and battery development.
For those not familiar with the MacArthur Genius Grant, it is an annual award and financial grant of $625,000 given out to approximately twenty individuals in a variety of fields who have demonstrated creativity, self-direction, and innovation in their area of practice. Aside from Will, other 2015 inductees include Hamilton composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, The Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates, and puppeteer Basil Twist.
While his work is firmly rooted in changing the real world, Will’s constant challenging of assumptions and wide-ranging skill set has allowed him to pursue avenues of research and practical application in chemistry that for all intents and purposes have made him a scientific superhero in his own right, one who could literally make people’s lives better with his work.