David Dixon, PhD and renowned computational chemist, is a Porsche enthusiast. It comes as no surprise then that as he tells the story of how he helped to save the stratospheric ozone layer, he talked about how to stay cool in a car in the summer in Alabama.
“Chlorofluorocarbons were developed in the 1920’s as miracle refrigerants that ended up being used in houses, cars, and refrigerators to cool them,” He said. They were then introduced as the gas to pressurize spray cans such as deodorant. Unfortunately, these chemicals as they gained broad use around the world led to the depletion of ozone in the stratosphere where it blocks the Sun’s ultraviolet rays.
This is the problem Dr. Dixon as part of a team at DuPont’s Experimental Station in Wilmington, Delaware had to correct. “We needed to develop chemical alternatives that would degrade more quickly and never reach the ozone layer,” he remembers.
The research team came up with new chemical compounds that would decompose by reacting in the lower atmosphere. These alternatives to chlorofluorocarbons initiated a revolution in developing environmentally friendly chemicals worldwide.
ARCS Foundation recently inducted Dr. Dixon into the Alumni Hall of Fame for his research that resulted in a paradigm shift in how the world’s major chemical companies develop new chemicals. Hall of Fame Inductees are ARCS Scholar Alumni who have made outstanding contributions to the advancement of science and US competitiveness in STEM-based innovation.
Dr. Dixon is the Robert Ramsay Chair, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
at the University of Alabama.
Computational chemistry, according to Dr. Dixon, was critical to the discovery of alternate compounds that would not damage the ozone. “What computational chemistry does is allow us to make predictions about the reactions and properties of molecules, and we can do that with accuracy that is as good, if not better than an experiment.” Dixon was one of the first researchers in the world to successfully apply computational chemistry to solve chemical problems in industry.
While at DuPont, Dixon and his team also used computational methods to virtually design an entire chemical plant. “Chemical plants are not straightforward,” he said. “The company had to purchase two years of the world’s entire supply of this special type of steel to build this plant, and they couldn’t have been sure it would work without this method.” After completion, this plant would go on to operate at 300 percent above expectation.
After his tenure at DuPont, Dr. Dixon led a team at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). At PNNL, his computational methods were used to solve environmental problems facing the Department of Energy nuclear weapons production complexes.
Dr. Dixon was an ARCS Scholar in 1968 while attending the California Institute of Technology, where he completed his Bachelor of Science in Chemistry. Dr. Dixon was grateful for the support the ARCS Scholar award provided. “The scholarship enabled me to complete my degree in four years and not have to worry about whether I could afford to attend the undergraduate school of my dreams.”
Dr. Dixon was awarded the Frederick Moody Blackmon-Sarah McCorkle Moody
Outstanding Professor Award in 2018. One of the most prestigious awards given by UA.
(Left: Dr. David Dixon, Right: UA President Dr. Stuart A. Bell)
He went on to receive a PhD from Harvard University in physical chemistry in 1976 with renowned Professors Dudley Herschbach (Nobel Prize, Chemistry, 1986) and William N. Lipscomb (Nobel Prize, Chemistry, 1976).
Tutelage with those award-winning chemists inspired Dr. Dixon to mentor hundreds of students throughout his career. Ashley Eberly Hunt, a chemistry student at UA and now a graduate researcher and ARCS Scholar at Washington State University, says Dr. Dixon was an incredible mentor. “Dr. Dixon taught me what it truly means to make an impact." She said. "When I casually mentioned that I was interested in trying research that combined my interests in math and chemistry, he immediately responded with “Join my lab.” When I told him I was planning to go to graduate school instead of medical school, he was quick to help me find a great summer internship and a PI for grad school. His legacy is one built not just on incredible perseverance and intellect, but also on kindness and generosity. Dr. Dixon taught me that to truly make an impact in a field, you must be willing to invest your time in the next generation, not just in your own accomplishments.”
Dr. Dixon has mentored more than 100 undergraduate students
in his career at The University of Alabama.
Surprisingly, as he recalls his advice to students over the years, Dr. Dixon says he found that it is good to let them fail. “Teaching them how to do research involves letting them fail a little,” he said. “So I try to let them fail within reason, teach them how to do research, and also teach them about time management.”
Time management is critical as a researcher, he says, because whether in academia or industry, there will always be multiple projects to complete. “I try to have my grad students work on multiple projects successfully, but also use that to help them think differently about problems based on the project.”
Today, Dr. Dixon is also in the middle of several research projects, ranging from renewable energy to heavy element research. At UA, he’s exploring hydrogen as a sustainable energy alternative. This work is funded by the United States Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. “We have been working on using chemical hydrogen storage for fuel cells to power vehicles and even the electrical needs for soldiers.” According to Dixon, soldiers often have electronic devices embedded within their uniforms to sense danger like lasers or biological weapons.
Dr. Dixon currently holds the position of Robert Ramsay Chair, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Alabama. He is the author of over 875 publications (775 of which are peer-reviewed) and is currently editing an eighth edition of Annual Reports in Computational Chemistry. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society, the American Chemical Society, and the European Academy of Sciences.
Read the full media release about Dr. David Dixon’s scientific accomplishments and impact here.