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Stache Receives DOE Early Career Award

Announcements- - By Wendy Plump

Erin Stache, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and one of its newest faculty members, has been awarded funding for next-generation STEM leaders from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science Early Career Research Program.

Stache is one of 93 early-career scientists from across the country to receive the prestigious award, which carries funding of $875K for her lab across the next five years.

Color image of P.I. Erin Stache standing in Frick Lab.

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Erin Stache, a 2023 recipient of the DOE’s Early Career Research Program awards.

Photo courtesy of the Stache Lab

The award is for her proposal, “Selective Degradation of Polymer Waste to Commodity Chemicals,” under the Basic Energy Sciences program office. The DOE announced the new cohort of fellows this week.

The DOE program aims to bolster the nation’s scientific workforce by supporting exceptional researchers at the outset of their careers when many scientists do their most formative work. Awardees were selected from a large pool of university- and national laboratory-based applicants.

This year’s awardees represent 48 universities and 12 national labs in 27 states. Selection was based on peer review by outside scientific experts.

“The DOE young investigator award is very prestigious and I am honored to have received it. It is an important validation for our young research program,” said Stache. “I am so proud of my students for having done remarkable work in gathering preliminary data to encourage funding. Seeing our research recognized for its value and importance to society is exciting.”

Like many early-career scientists facing a legion of global environmental and sustainability challenges, Stache is working in the field of “green chemistry,” in her case through the application of chemistry to plastic recycling. While presently essential to modern life, plastic is both ubiquitous and minimally recyclable, leading to a vast accumulation of plastic and its byproducts in the environment.

The Stache Lab seeks to tackle this problem in part by developing new recycling strategies for plastic waste valorization into commodity chemicals using fundamental principles of organic chemistry.

“We will use selective C–H abstraction to enable divergent product streams, enhancing the commercial practicality of the approach,” said Stache. “Another challenge in polymer recycling is selectivity for a single plastic in mixed waste. We will use kinetic and thermodynamic selectivity principles to achieve selective valorization in mixed polymer waste. Successful demonstration of these approaches will motivate new recycling approaches and research into the chemical upcycling of commercial polymer waste.”

The Stache Lab works to expand "green" chemistry in part by developing new recycling strategies for plastic waste valorization into commodity chemicals using fundamental principles of organic chemistry.

“The first publication out of our group focused on converting polystyrene into benzoic acid, a precursor to food additives or fragrances, establishing the foundation for this concept,” Stache added. “With the support of this grant, our objective is to continue this research to convert plastic waste into useful chemical feedstocks.” 

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Marissa Weichman received this DOE award last year. Since its inception in 2010, the Early Career Research Program has made 868 awards, with 564 awards to university researchers and 304 awards to National Lab researchers.

“Supporting America’s scientists and researchers early in their careers will ensure the U.S. remains at the forefront of scientific discovery and develops the solutions to our most pressing challenges,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “The funding announced today will allow the recipients the freedom to find the answers to some of the most complex questions as they establish themselves as experts in their fields.”

Information about the 93 awardees and their research projects can be found in the full DOE press release