Chemistry’s new ssNMR instrument: “limitless” possibilities for campus researchers

Written by
Wendy Plump, Department of Chemistry
May 16, 2024

Marking a watershed acquisition for Princeton’s campus, the Department of Chemistry’s new solid-state Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (ssNMR) instrument—funded through an ambitious partnership with the Office of the Provost, Office of the Dean for Research, and Princeton Materials Institute (PMI)—is fully installed in the basement of Frick Lab and ready for use by researchers across campus and regionally.

Coupled with klystron-based dynamic nuclear polarization (DNP) sensitivity enhancement, the new instrument is one of only about 10 in the world. It will enable transformative science in research involving biological and small molecules, solar cells, catalysts, polymers, semiconductors, batteries, and soils and sediments.

“The possibilities for new discoveries and things which have never been seen before are limitless,” said István Pelczer, director of the NMR facility at Frick Lab.

Richard Register, director of PMI, said he is thrilled that the instrument offers Princeton researchers new opportunities for collaboration. “The launch of the Transformative Equipment Initiative program in the Dean for Research Office made this possible. We are going to be one of very few places that have this kind of capability.

“I think that’s where the biggest benefit is going to come,” said Register, “in drawing in new researchers to use ssNMR for the first time.”

Faculty members who have expressed an interest in using the new instrument range from chemistry to Civil and Environmental Engineering, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Chemical and Biological Engineering, Geosciences, Molecular Biology, and Electrical and Computer Engineering, among others.

The acquisition was funded through the Provost and Dean for Research offices’ Transformative Equipment Initiative, which was established in 2022 to support the acquisition of shared facilities.

What is NMR?

NMR is a spectroscopic technique that enables atomic-scale insights into the composition, structure, and dynamics of materials, with applications to molecules in the liquid, solid, or gas phases. The new instrument at Princeton Chemistry expands capabilities to prepared samples in the solid state.

Previously, chemistry’s NMR facility covered only analysis on solution-state samples, a critical limitation for many researchers working on advanced materials in the natural sciences and engineering. Insights enabled by solid-state NMR can elucidate fundamentally new correlations between atomic structures and synthetic techniques, equilibrium and excited states, and conformational dynamics for wide-ranging materials classes.

The instrument’s klystron-based DNP also allows for more flexibility in the design of materials and experiments to understand them. It will significantly reduce an experiment’s run time: an experiment that would normally have a three-month duration, said Pelczer, can be reduced to one day.

The instrument will be available for use by Princeton faculty, researchers, undergraduate students, grad students, and postdocs. Training sessions are anticipated to take place this summer and fall, with an invitational inaugural symposium planned for the fall.

Large machine in a laboratory

The new ssNMR instrument fully installed at Frick Laboratory and ready for use by Princeton researchers. Photo courtesy of researchers

The new ssNMR instrument fully installed at Frick Laboratory and ready for use by Princeton researchers.

John Groves, who holds the Hugh Stott Taylor Chair of Chemistry, was involved in drafting the proposal to the Transformative Equipment Initiative back in the summer of 2022.

“Our NMR facility is by far the largest and most heavily relied upon core facility in Frick, with dozens of research groups participating across campus and more than 250 individual users of the instruments,” said Groves. “Our ability to perform experiments [in the solid state] has until now been severely limited.”

Marcella Lusardi, an assistant professor of CBE and PMI, has looked forward to the instrument’s installation since its funding was approved. “The research in my group focuses on designing advanced catalytic materials to solve complex challenges in sustainable chemistry. Designing these materials requires molecular-scale insight into the ways that materials surfaces are organized, and the ways those surfaces interact with molecules during catalytic processes.

“Solid-state NMR techniques capture such molecular-level information quantitatively, enabling the elucidation of fundamentally new correlations that guide rational materials design. As a result, it is crucial to my research. Bringing ssNMR with DNP techniques to campus will solidify Princeton’s position as a leader in state-of-the-art characterization facilities.”

Lusardi noted that the skills developed while using the instrument will give undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs an edge in a competitive job market.