Caleb Martin

Season 2 - Episode 250

December 6, 2019

Caleb Martin
Caleb Martin

What role does chemistry play in consumer electronics? Dr. Caleb Martin, associate professor of chemistry at Baylor, conducts nationally-recognized research in the process of boron compound synthesis, which has the potential to improve a number of everyday electronic products using LED lights. In this Baylor Connections, he shares how that process works, the impact of a National Science Foundation CAREER grant, and the ways Baylor’s research focus will impact the University’s ability to address important challenges.

Transcript

Derek Smith:

Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and our guest today is Caleb Martin. Dr. Martin is an associate professor of chemistry at Baylor and principal investigator of the Martin research group. He's a nationally recognized researcher who twice has been named the Baylor Rising Star, and who earned a 2018 National Science Foundation Career Award, the most prestigious grant awarded by the National Science Foundation.The award supports Martins research on the synthesis of boron compounds for electronic materials. These materials have the potential to improve a number of devices people use every day, and Martin's work advances this burgeoning area of studying. He's with us today on the program. Caleb Martin, it's great to have you here. Thanks so much for joining us.

Caleb Martin:

Thank you for having me. I look forward to discussing what we do.

Derek Smith:

Well. Let's define a few of these words that we heard here at the top of the show. First to start off, what is boron, and where can people find it more readily?

Caleb Martin:

So boron, it's one of the elements on the periodic table. So thinking about what most people are familiar with would be carbon. And to the right of carbon is nitrogen, but to the left of carbon is boron. So it would be the atomic number five. Thinking about where you would find it, so actually the US has a significant mine in the Mojave desert, sort of in actually boron, California. So within the country, that's where most of the boron is mined. So it's just in between LA and Las Vegas. And in terms of, the US doesn't have the largest supply of boron in the world, actually. Most of it's in Turkey, but they actually produce the most refined chemicals. And it's mostly found in oxides. So, you don't just find it in its element on its own. Carbon you can find often on its own. Examples would be diamond, that's pure carbon, or graphite that you commonly encounter. So you'd find these as oxides, which an oxide of carbon would be carbon dioxide. And so you often have to convert these to more usable chemicals. But often people use them, borax, obviously in the cleaning. There's no real significant known toxicity of boron oxides to people, but you may know that they're toxic to insects. So, often people will use it to kill fire ants in a much milder way, or detergents and things like that. In terms of materials, where you would find it, it's often used in, I think the most common use is in fiberglass and glass to both strengthen and enhance properties. So we're not necessarily down that line, but certainly important to know where things are coming from and what they're typically used for.

Derek Smith:

For many of us, Dr. Martin, who, may be our experience with chemistry ended with a basic class in college or in high school somewhere, I think when we think of chemistry, you know you mentioned the periodic table. Certainly we think of that, but as you talk about a mine in California, or consumer electronics, as we're going to be talking about here in a little bit, probably not what we think about, in many cases. Do you find that people are surprised or have misconceptions about the work you do?

Caleb Martin:

Well, I think it's important to, to educate the public because a lot of these, the research that we do is funded by grants that are from tax-paying dollars. Yeah. We want to make sure we're not pigeonholing ourselves into thinking that's all that it's useful for.You can really just look at the fundamental properties and perhaps think of some unique applications that other people aren't doing. And so, that's the beauty of academic research is, we can be a little more explorative in the fact that we don't have to generate profit tomorrow or with a company. And so, academic research is a little different than with a company, that we can be a little bit more risky, and answer these fundamental questions that hopefully, you can then come up with something that's useful in an electronic device, but maybe people hadn't been looking at for whatever reason at that time.

Derek Smith:

How do you tailor your research for applications like that?

Caleb Martin:

So, I wouldn't say that the projects that we have, we were just curiously trying to make molecules, and then it was sort of serendipitously that we stumbled upon this unique reaction that can make these stable compounds. And so, what we realized is boron, it's a little different than carbon. So typically, we have this octet rule, or eight electron rule for carbon, and boron doesn't always have to obey that. And it can have an electron deficiency. And so what this can do, can be conducting, and so it can accept electrons and then transport them to other things, and facilitate conducting. And so that's a really what we realized that the compounds that we were making had this specific property of an electron deficient boron that could be conducting and useful for electronic, or components in electronic devices. And so, we looked at the fundamental properties just fluorescence. So simply you shine light on it, and see what it emits, and it emits something in perhaps a more desirable region. And that's ultimately the way we go about thing is just, you make a compound and then think about what potentially it could be used for, and then try and optimize those properties as a sequential process.

Derek Smith:

What sorts of products might this be useful for, and what aspects of that, whether it's a sliding in the screen, or what does that look like, from an end user standpoint, potentially?

Caleb Martin:

Okay. So primarily in my research, what boron, or what we call is conjugated boron materials, so boron, inline with say a sheet of carbon. And so what that does, is it makes it more conducting or electron accepting. And so what this is useful for, is not necessarily something on its own, but usually for things like OLEDs, which is organic light emitting diodes. So displays, people are probably familiar with all of their things on the television screens. Somehow you have to generate all these colors. And so typically, the method that this works is you pass a current through the material and depending on the current, you get certain colors, and you're able to get control. And certain colors are hard to get. And so, you can also make things more energy efficient to prolong battery life. And so that's on the side of OLEDs, and how compounds we're making could potentially enhance those. Looking at solar energy generating devices, that's sort of been recognized, renewable energy as an area of need. And, we're not necessarily running out of fossil fuels, but there's better alternatives. And in certain areas of the world, it's not necessarily that feasible to access all of these things. So, organic photovoltaic solar cells are sort of unique. They're not the ones that you would typically find on your roof, but these ones are typically portable, and you can roll up. Perhaps you've seen people with walking around with backpacks that have, you can actually put them in the fabric in your hat and charge your device while you're walking around. So, that's obviously a first world application. And for third world, you can think about, it's not necessarily feasible to set up an energy grid everywhere. And so you can have a portable device that you could just unroll if you were out camping or just needed some light or something to charge your batteries to do something like that. And it'd be very easy to do that because sunlight is very accessible in a lot of parts of the world.

Derek Smith:

We are visiting with Dr. Caleb Martin, associate professor of chemistry here on Baylor connections. And you joined the Baylor faculty in 2013, and I think you painted a little bit of a picture as you've talked about the fact that some of what we're talking about isn't what you were initially looking for. But how would you say that your research has grown since you've come here?

Caleb Martin:

So, coming from just I guess what you typically do after a PhD is a postdoc. In reality as a graduate student or as a postdoctoral researcher, you've never really been in charge or been responsible for paying the bills and what not. So it's a total career change from that perspective in terms of you're not really doing much of the hands on stuff other than teaching students, but it's more of a managerial position in where you're educating the students as well as fundraising, making sure all the bills get paid, as well as-

Derek Smith:

It's like a small business, isn't it?

Caleb Martin:

Essentially you're under an umbrella at an academic institution, but you have your own employees, you're responsible for fundraising and making sure that you're being productive in some way, exactly like a small business. So when I joined, I had an empty lab and of course you do get startup money from the university to buy equipment that sort of gets you through the first couple of years, and then you're expected to be self-sustainable in funding that. So it takes a while to get funding in the US system. And so you need preliminary data. So, since then we now have three active research grants. I'll say that when I did my job proposal, we had three projects and only one of those ended up being pursued. So maybe at some point I was a little bit more ambitious with some ideas and getting the ball rolling. But we evolved, and now the group's six people. We've been up to eight and I don't really do any reactions or make anything in the lab anymore. That's all the students, which I think that's sort of the way things are designed to be. It is fun to get in, and mix things together, and make something new from time to time. But that's the way the job is. But it's certainly a lot of fun to interact with the students and see them learn over the time that they're there.

Derek Smith:

I know there may not be, I don't know if there's a typical day in your lab, but if we were to a knock on the door, and you were to let us in your lab on a typical day when school's in session, what might we see your students doing?

Caleb Martin:

So usually they'd be in the lab. So if you take a walk in my lab, there's eight fume hoods. So that's sort of like your stove top, sucks air out but a little bit more, a little bit less leaky than that. So we have eight foot fume hoods it with all the glass where they need to do experiments. And so usually there'll be some flasks with reactions stirring where they're either setting them up or taking them down and trying to analyze them for what we have. And what we do is usually air sensitive air or moisture, so typically oxygen and water. So we have special glassware that can get rid of the... So we can manipulate things with them and having to worry about them. And then we also have, which you may see on TV, these glove boxes are not, are not a car glove box, but these big boxes where you stick your entire arms in, and so those are either a nitrogen or argon atmosphere. So we have three of those, which two of them can hold two people and then the other a single person. So often we work in there because there's no risk of contamination. You sort of have to have some skill outside of the glove box to handle these things. You can do things a lot faster. And so there's always people in the glove box and sometimes people will be in the office writing up papers or reading papers to try and see what to do next or how to navigate through their problems.

Derek Smith:

This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Dr. Caleb Martin, associate professor of chemistry at Baylor and the winner of an NSF Career grant. What did that, you talk about funding and getting funding. What did that grant mean to you?

Caleb Martin:

So in terms of what it meant, it was looking back, so Baylor has not always had a research emphasis like they're putting forward. So I think I was the third NSF Career Award winner. So, there was one in 2007, Lorin Matthews in physics, and then 2012 with Bryan Shaw in chemistry, and then myself. And there was another, Howard Lee in physics won it. So it's not something that is routinely awarded to people at Baylor. And so, it certainly was something that certainly gives you recognition, and most importantly allows us not have to worry about funding for a few years. And grant proposal writing takes up a lot of time. And so it allows us to focus on the research. And also, it funds our outreach program in the community and most importantly supports graduate students to educate them throughout their time at Baylor.

Derek Smith:

What was it about your research that particularly captured NSF's attention?

Caleb Martin:

I think it was the fact that it's unique, and no one in the US is working on these types of problems. So, the NSF doesn't like to fund the same project twice obviously, and then also wants to see new directions because ideally they sort of tailor fundamental research, whereas the other agencies such as the NIH, National Institute of Health, is geared towards very applied medicinal research. And all the army institutions really have direct missions as well as the Department of Energy, where they more or less announced the problems and then they'll put several people on them and hopefully that they can eventually address them. So the NSF, or National Science Foundation, is a little bit different in the fact that they're looking for new ideas. And so I think that was the appeal, is there's not many boron chemists in the US, and there's no one necessarily working on this problem. And so that I think was what was appealing to them.

Derek Smith:

Part of that grant involves giving back to the community. How do you integrate benefit to the community into that research?

Caleb Martin:

So, we had actually been doing this a little bit before the grant, but the grant sort of as allowed us to strengthen relationships. We've been working with the Cove, which is an organization in Waco on Washington Avenue, which is in the Waco ISD, which is tailored for homeless high school students. And it gives them a place to go after school where, they're fed a meal, they're able to get tutoring and resources, which they otherwise wouldn't have. And so for us, we've now been doing this since their pilot year. They started in 2016. And so a typical visit we buy them dinner, so that's included in the grant, and try and have informal interactions with them over dinner because it's typically, perhaps we're not the type of folks that they interact with on a day to day basis. And we're not always in the school system. And so also I have a large number of minority students in the group, and we always have them because the Waco ISD has a significant minority population. It helps them relate to one another as well as first generation students.And then we do some demonstrations. So we have a couple of different sort of 40-ish minute ones. One general chemistry, where we just try and get them interested in some basic concepts, and using dry ice, liquid nitrogen, some fun things, making ice cream. And then some that are, another one that's more tailored towards our research where we'll actually bring in some of the compounds we're making. And that's a lot doing with fluorescence and luminescent properties. So, how glow sticks work, and we'll make essentially take the two solutions, and show what's in them and, what properties make these as well as fluorescents, like scorpions, glow in the dark. All of these properties that we use in the electronic technology can easily be related to some everyday device. And it's sort of nice to see students get excited about these things.

Derek Smith:

Visiting with Caleb Martin here on Baylor Connections. And as we talk about your research from that broader level, what does it mean to you as a young researcher? You you mentioned we're starting to see with your career grant, Howard Lee and others, starting to see a little more of that. What does Baylor as that research focus through illuminate as we grow into pursuing our one status? What does that mean to you as a young researcher?

Caleb Martin:

The biggest impact for me is, well our one, is essentially a reputation thing. And for me, it's recruiting both new faculty, and new students, and postdocs in the group. Not only from a domestic stance, but internationally, because there's just so many schools out there, and so you have to somehow separate or distinguish yourself. And so a lot of international schools, they're ones that look at rankings perhaps the most. Whereas the U S perhaps you go by what you hear, and maybe also look at the rankings too. So recruiting, both in students, postdocs and new faculty. Getting highly qualified colleagues, which typically bring along equipment, and resources, and opportunities for collaborations. And, it's a lot easier to just walk across the street for an expert than it is to contact someone from a different school or perhaps a different, and a lot easier to use equipment that is just next door rather than across the country or something along those lines.

Derek Smith:

Visiting with Caleb Martin as we head into the final moments on the program, what's next for your research? Where do you see it going as we look towards the future?

Caleb Martin:

So the discussion's focused mostly on electronic materials, which that's the largest component of my group, but I think we'd like to branch out into some more medicinal applications, and with that, grow the group. So right now we're currently six, but have room to grow to perhaps get 10 people, and branch out to a new area. So what we're realizing is a lot of our compounds, they sort of have the framework where they could be useful as drugs, or offer different biological interactions that previously had not been achieved. So we're going to of course, target the NIH, and hopefully be able to get a project that generates some useful compounds that hopefully have useful biological activity. So, I think we're not necessarily going to start from scratch, but utilize some of the compounds that we have for a different area, and sort of tailor their properties for that.

Derek Smith:

Well, that all sounds very exciting. We look forward to hopefully a hearing more about that, and congratulations on the NSF Career Award, that's very exciting.

Caleb Martin:

Thank you very much, Derek.

Derek Smith:

And thank you very much for joining us. We appreciate it. It's been great to have you on the program today. Dr Caleb Martin, associate professor of chemistry at Baylor, and principal investigator of the Martin Research Group, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith to remind you, you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections.