Malika Jeffries-EL: Q&A

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Malika Jeffries-EL looks to one of the most abundant elements to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems. Boston University’s BU Research recently spoke to Prof. Jeffries-EL about a life in chemistry, her favorite element, and seeing her work in lights.

Her love affair began at science camp. Like many young scientists before her, she fell hard, smitten by the elegance and beauty of the periodic table. “Back then, I was like, ‘Oh my God, there are all these different atoms!’” she recalls. “You can mix them together and make all these different molecules! I could be all day with this.”

Today, Prof. Jeffries-EL is looking for new materials that could fill a pressing need for cheaper, simpler, flexible semiconductors. As the world grows ever hungrier for laptops, iPhones, solar cells, and lights, the race for next-generation semiconductors is on. She is betting on organic polymers—long molecules comprised mostly of carbon.

 

BU Research: What is a polymer, anyway?

Jeffries-EL: A polymer is what we call a macromolecule, with molecules being some of the smallest things that make up, well, everything.

Wait. But no, that’s not true, is it?

Well, okay, yeah, if you want to talk physics, you can break things into particles. But if we go chemistry-style into the periodic table, we have our atoms; and if you can bind atoms together in various fashions, you can make molecules. So H2O is a molecule. It’s composed of three atoms: two hydrogens and one oxygen. A polymer is the type of molecule you get if you string a bunch of smaller molecules together. If you think about a pearl necklace, a pearl would be your molecule but the necklace would be your polymer.

So why do we care about polymers?

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