Surface Science and Catalysis Research

In the spring of 2016, 4-VA at JMU awarded Dr. Ashleigh Baber $5,000 and 4-VA at VT awarded Dr. John Morris another $5,000 for a grant called Ethanol Chemistry on Titania/Gold Model Catalysts with the aim of understanding how molecules interact with and react on catalytic surfaces to drive the rational design of new materials for catalysis. There are many industrial applications for ethanol including its use as a solvent in perfumes and essences, as a fuel and fuel additive in the automotive industry, and for the production of hydrogen to use as a direct fuel or for hydrogenation reactions. Studies of ethanol chemistry on oxygen-modified gold surfaces catalyze the oxidation of ethanol to form important chemical feedstocks as well.

Dr. Ashleigh Baber
Assistant Professor of Chemistry

Dr. John Morris
Professor of Chemistry

Catalysts play a key role in improving and maintaining air, water and soil quality and are central to the production of food, chemicals and pharmaceuticals.
The Langmuir Research Institute

The research is conducted in an effort to unravel the key active sites of solid catalytic materials to better understand structure-reactivity relationships. Surface science studies of the size effects of nanoparticles contribute to the understanding of the basic chemistry of these materials related to small molecules. The collaboration allowed JMU and VT to study the same system with a wide variety of surface science techniques that complement each other to obtain a full picture of the chemistry of ethanol on TiO2/Au surfaces. The fundamental characterization of active sites is necessary for understanding reaction pathways, leading to the synthesis and conversion of fuels and the rational design of the next generation of catalysts that can deliver the desired reactivity. Parallel collaborative experiments at the two universities allowed the team to elucidate the critical relationship between chemical reactivity and structure of relevant catalytic materials in an effort to understand the fundamental mechanisms in ethanol conversion reactions to guide the rational design of more active catalysts.

Grant Info

  • Spring 2016 – JMU and VT were awarded $10,000 for Ethanol Chemistry on Titania/Gold Model Catalysts.

  • Fall 2016 – JMU and VT were awarded $15,000 for Harnessing TiO2/AU and Au/TiO2 Catalysts for Proprene Oxide Synthesis.

David Boyle

Working on this project in Dr. Baber’s lab solidified my ambition to be a scientist and propelled me to pursue further education in chemistry. The funding from 4-VA helped make research opportunities possible, which ultimately made me competitive in graduate applications.

David BoyleChemistry, Class of 2017 at JMU
Jeremy Wilke

I have a greater appreciation for failure now than I used to. Failure is something that classes don’t teach because if you fail in a class then you really set yourself back and that can cause stress or anxiety. In the research lab, failure can be plentiful but you learn to get past it. The mental strength you develop in the lab stems from your dealings with failure and it is invaluable especially in the field of science.

Jeremy WilkeChemistry, Class of 2018 at JMU


Undergraduates are underlined

  • Baber, A. E., Boyle, D. T.; Andahazy, W. J.; Lam, V. H.; Schlosser, D. A.; Tosti, N.; Wilke, J. A., Determining optimum surface preparations to control the selectivity of ethanol chemistry over TiO2/Au(111), 253rd American Chemical Society National Meeting, San Francisco, April 6, 2017. Oral presentation.
  • Boyle, D. T.; Wilke, J. A.; Lam, V. H.; Baber, A. E., Elucidating distinct Au(111) and TiO2 /Au(111) surface sites for the selective oxidation of ethanol to acetaldehyde, 253rd American Chemical Society National Meeting, San Francisco, April 2, 2017. Undergraduate poster presentation.
  • Wilke, J. A.; Baber, A. E., Stabilization and reaction of small molecules on TiO2/ Au(111) inverse model catalysts, 253rd American Chemical Society National Meeting, San Francisco, April 2, 2017. Undergraduate poster presentation.
  • Baber, A. E., Boyle, D. T.; Andahazy, W. J.; Lam, V. H.; Schlosser, D. A.; Tosti, N.; Wilke, J. A., Titania/ gold inverse model catalysts for acetaldehyde formation from ethanol, 63rd International American Vacuum Society Symposium & Exhibition, Nash


  • David T. Boyle, Jeremy A. Wilke, Robert M. Palomino, Vivian H. Lam, Daniel A. Schlosser, Wil J. Andahazy, Cameron Z. Stopak, Dario J. Stacchiola, Jose A. Rodriguez, and Ashleigh E. Baber, “Elucidation of Active Sites for the Reaction of Ethanol on TiO2/Au (111)”. J. Phys. Chem. C, 121 (14), pp 7794–7802 (2017).

Benefits to the Commonwealth

Developed strong surface science collaboration across Virginia

Obtained preliminary data for future federal funding

Leveraged specialized chemistry resources

Initiated statewide surface science network

Student Impact

Significantly bolstered student resumes and CVs

Work featured in high quality, peer-reviewed publications

Made significant progress as independent scientists and critical thinkers

Unique undergraduate access to hands-on ultrahigh vacuum (UHV) surface science research

First publication has a JMU senior first author, who is now a Ph.D. student at Stanford University

Rare undergraduate exposure to state-of-the-art concepts in catalysis, surface science, and surface science instrumentation

Student Researchers

  • David Boyle
  • Jeremy Wilke
  • Max Gillum
  • Nick Tosti
  • Vivian Lam
  • Wil Andahazy

Student Researchers