The $65,000 three-year grant was awarded
by the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund.
Laura McCunn, an
assistant chemistry professor received the grant to examine petroleum and
biofuels. McCunn along with 7 undergraduate students will use the funds to
study how several specific molecules decompose when they are heated in the
absence of oxygen.
The hope is that the research will allow them to more
closely look at the decomposition of something called aldehydes, which occur as
byproducts in biofuels and can be emitted from biodiesel engines.
“Aldehydes can be present in biofuel
production, they can also be present in certain food items and also tobacco
products, so if aldehydes are subjected to high temperatures in any of these different
products, we might be able to shed light on how they might decompose and what
kind of contaminates are in these products,” McCunn said.
Through an elaborate process elements
are put through a machine that heats them at a high temperature without oxygen breaking
them down. In the next step the resulting molecules are frozen so they can be
examined. McCunn said one application of their research could look at burning
gasoline in vehicles.
“If you burn gasoline in your car and
there are aldehydes present for whatever reason, then if we know how aldehydes
might break down then we could predict what types of pollutants might be
emitted from your car and so this is really important for air quality and
health concerns,” McCunn said.
Aldehydes are often found in oils and
often contribute to the smell of certain things in nature. McCunn said the
molecules they are studying could even produce soot which gets into the
“Knowing how soot is formed is really a
complicated process, so we may be able to show a few different pathways that
could lead to soot formation based on how these molecules we’re studying
decompose,” McCunn said.
The grant they received is aimed at
getting undergraduate students more involved in the research process with the
hopes of giving them a head start on graduate school or employment. Michael Castellani
is the Chair of the Chemistry department. He said the importance of getting
undergraduate students involved in this type of research is vitally important.
“The research lab gives students the
opportunity to actually become a practicing chemist and these kinds of grants
allow students to do it for periods of weeks at a time, an entire summer so
they can find out, do I really want to do this with my life because the students
are young and you have to decide what you’re going to do for the next 45 years
of your life and that’s an awfully long time,”Castellani said.
Castellani said it’s important for
Marshall to be in the forefront in these types of research.
“The best way to deal with problems like
these is to never have it in the first place so if you can understand the
mechanism by which the molecules break down, then in principle you can design
systems that prevent that from happening,” Castellani said.
The research will start in September of