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Philadelphia science prize goes to climate change and electronics researchers from Penn, UCLA

One winner, Emily Carter, is working on reverse combustion, a process that could turn greenhouse gas back into fuel. Charles Kane and Eugene Mele are recognized for work that could aid future generations of ultrafast computers.

UCLA chemist Emily A. Carter, left, and University of Pennsylvania physicists Charles Kane, center, and Eugene Mele, right, have been awarded the John Scott Award for their achievements in science.
UCLA chemist Emily A. Carter, left, and University of Pennsylvania physicists Charles Kane, center, and Eugene Mele, right, have been awarded the John Scott Award for their achievements in science.Read moreDavid Kelly Crow; University of Pennsylvania

They come at the challenge of inventing high-tech materials from different directions.

UCLA chemist Emily A. Carter uses supercomputers to simulate the interactions between millions of atomic particles, designing new materials to strike a blow against climate change. University of Pennsylvania physicists Charles Kane and Eugene Mele predict the behavior of such particles using the theoretical language of mathematics, paving the way for next-generation computers.

The three are being honored in Philadelphia on Friday with the John Scott Award, given annually to recognize innovation in science. First bestowed in 1822, the prize was endowed by Scott, a chemist and pharmacist from Scotland, in honor of Benjamin Franklin.

All three of this year’s recipients have been honored many times by other organizations, Kane and Mele last year with a $3 million Breakthrough Prize. But given the link to Franklin, the Scott award seems especially fitting for a trio of scientists who work with energy and electricity.

“The Philadelphia connection is meaningful,” Kane said.

Carter, a longtime faculty member at Princeton University before starting at UCLA in September, decided more than a decade ago to focus her efforts on the issue of sustainable energy. Among her ongoing projects is inventing sophisticated catalysts to enable a process called reverse combustion — combining carbon dioxide and water to produce fuel.

The emission of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is a prime culprit in climate change. Reverse combustion could turn some of that greenhouse gas back into fuel, potentially alleviating the crisis, she said.

So far, the various attempts at reverse combustion have yielded only small amounts of fuel, typically in the form of alcohol. But Carter, who also serves as UCLA’s executive vice chancellor and provost, is optimistic that she can optimize the process by using supercomputers to simulate the necessary chemical interactions.

“We’re seeing if we can figure out ways to take carbon dioxide that has been emitted to the atmosphere and essentially use it over and over again in a virtuous cycle,” she said.

Kane and Mele are being recognized for their mathematical prediction of a new class of electronic materials called topological insulators, widely expected to be useful in future generations of ultrafast computers.

In a landmark 2005 paper, the pair used theoretical physics to demonstrate that such materials should exist. The first such substances were created two years later by a team of German scientists.

The materials act like hybrids of insulators and conductors, a property that could be harnessed to improve energy efficiency in electronics.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia launches regional collaborative to tackle climate change

Carter, Kane, and Mele are receiving the Scott awards in a ceremony at the American Philosophical Society. Each is to receive a medal and a $10,000 cash prize.

The Scott Awards are given each year by the Board of Directors of City Trusts, a group that manages dozens of charitable trusts for which the City of Philadelphia has been named as trustee. The winners are chosen based on recommendations from a panel of scientists — a group that includes representatives from Temple and Drexel Universities and the University of Pennsylvania.