A University of Central Florida researcher has been selected for an Early Career Award by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to investigate elusive chemical compounds that could help mitigate the impact of combustion on climate change. The researcher, Denisia Popolan-Vaida, will receive $800,000 for a period of five years to support her research.

The compounds, known as Criegee intermediates, form by reactions of ozone and hydrocarbons, and only within the last decade have scientists been able to directly measure them because of their low concentrations and short lifetime.

Popolan-Vaida, who is an assistant professor in UCF’s Department of Chemistry, is one of 83 elite scientists from across the nation who were selected to receive the awards this year.

Awardees were selected from 13 national laboratories and 47 universities applicants. Selection was based on peer review by outside scientific experts.

Even though scientists have begun to better understand Criegee intermediates there is still much that needs to be learned, Popolan-Vaida says.

“A detailed mechanistic understanding of the Criegee intermediates’ reaction network is currently lacking in part due to limitations in detecting intermediate species that usually occur in small concentrations,” she says.

“Identification and quantification of these species within complex reactive mixtures is essential for the development of a fundamental, chemically accurate description of complex atmospheric and combustion systems,” she says. “This research can guide the rational design of more efficient low emission fuel architectures and engine technologies to reduce the impact of combustion on our environment.”

Popolan-Vaida’s project is titled “Mechanistic understanding of the Criegee intermediates reaction network in atmospheric and combustion systems” and falls under the DOE’s Basic Energy Sciences program office.

Denisia Popolan-Vaida,
UCF Chemistry Assistant Professor Denisia Popolan-Vaida holds the jet-stirred reactor that will be used to perform the proposed research.

“I am thrilled to receive this prestigious award from the Department of Energy and very excited about the work ahead,” Popolan-Vaida says. “I am very grateful to the Department of Energy for providing this generous support to my research group. It is simply brilliant to have the resources to perform research on a topic that I am very passionate about, which is so important for our environment. This accomplishment would not have been possible without the hard work of my students and the wonderful support of some of my colleagues and collaborators, including professors Dr. Stephen Kuebler and Dr. Cherie Yebstresky at UCF, and Dr. Nils Hansen with Sandia National Laboratories.”

The DOE’s Early Career Research Program is designed to bolster the nation’s scientific workforce by providing support to exceptional researchers during the crucial early career years, when many scientists do their most formative work.

“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 in a recent press release. “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.”

Popolan-Vaida joined UCF’s Department of Chemistry, part of the College of Sciences, in 2017. She received her doctoral degree in physical chemistry from University of Ulm in Germany and worked as a postdoctoral research fellow at University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory before coming to UCF.  She is the co-author of over 30 peer-reviewed scientific articles, presented her work at local, national, and international conferences, and is the recipient of several international fellowships.