BNL’s Muckerman works on artificial photosynthesis

BNL’s Muckerman works on artificial photosynthesis

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While wines are his passion, it was the martinis that changed James Muckerman’s life. Ten years ago, the senior chemist at Brookhaven National Laboratory attended a memorial symposium for the former chairman in his department, Richard Dodson.

Muckerman was at a table with Cal Tech’s Harry Gray, who was the keynote speaker. The waiters had mixed up some of the water pitchers with the martinis, a favorite drink of the late chemistry chairman. As Muckerman described it, a “well-lubricated (Gray) explained the plan to sell the Bush administration on the importance of solar energy.” Gray suggested that everyone in the scientific community ought to get behind this effort.

“By the time he was finished,” Muckerman recalled, “I was ready to sign on the dotted line.”

Muckerman said he didn’t want to continue to burn hydrocarbon reserves, adding to the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A goal of artificial photosynthesis that appealed to him was that it recycles the greenhouse gas.

Muckerman and his colleagues investigate new basic photo- and electrochemistry for carrying out the various steps in artificial photosynthesis, which include light absorption, charge separation, water oxidation, hydrogen production and carbon dioxide reduction.

The change in career direction had its risks. Muckerman had become an expert in his field and already had a regular stream of funding for his studies. It was as if he had a long-running show on television and he had to go back to the pilot stage, waiting to see if the early results merited more money.

Fortunately, following his passion and interest in this new area worked out for Muckerman, who dedicates his professional energy to working on artificial photosynthesis as a theoretical chemist.

That means he uses quantum chemistry to figure out the critical but often unknown intermediate steps in between the beginning and end of a chemical reaction.

He works in close collaboration with others in the department who do hands-on laboratory research, including Etsuko Fujita, who is the leader of the artificial photosynthesis group.

The connection between the theoretical and the practical chemistry has “a history of using basic understanding of how chemistry processes work to design better molecules for artificial photosynthesis,” said Alex Harris, the chairman of the chemistry department.

Muckerman and Fujita aren’t just scientific collaborators, but are also partners in life.

Harris said Muckerman and Fujita have an “extremely productive collaboration.” Muckerman developed theories to help explain her results, while also predicting ways to improve her performance. He also was able to learn a new field by working closely with an established experimentalist, Harris added.

Wei-Fu Chen, a research associate at BNL who has worked with both of them, described the team as “solid and highly united and has become the most pioneering in the field of artificial photosynthesis.” On top of that, Chen felt the tandem served as “wonderful supervisors and friends.”

The couple, who live in Port Jefferson, have been together since 1985. Each of them have children from previous marriages, which means all the children “regard us as their parents,” he said. Muckerman said the two of them have an unofficial game of chicken, where the first to leave the lab has to cook dinner.

“I always lose,” Muckerman laughed, although Fujita does the cooking on the weekends.

Muckerman said the couple, whose work travels have allowed them to pursue their shared interest in wine tasting (his favorite is a red burgundy, while she expressed a preference for champagne and Japanese sake), complement each other’s professional interests.

Muckerman praised Fujita’s work ethic. That incredible focus enabled Fujita to earn her doctorate from Georgia Tech in an astoundingly quick two-year period.

In addition to contributing his theoretical chemistry and weekday culinary skills to their partnership, Muckerman also offers editing advice to Fujita and the rest of the artificial intelligence group. “I’ve been correcting the same mistakes in (Fujita’s) English for 30 years,” he said.

Fujita and Muckerman realize what’s at stake in the work they’re doing. Alternative energy, including the use of artificial photosynthesis, is an area that has to succeed, Muckerman said.

“The energy problem,” offered Fujita, who has worked on artificial photosynthesis for 25 years, “is the most important issue in this century.”

Muckerman shared similar sentiments. “I firmly believe that our survival depends on developing new ways to harness clean energy,” he said, “but it’s not going to be easy.”