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Monday, March 28, 2011

Photo by Dr. Philip Hampton

Samantha Guhan seals a test tube filled with 
plant material and dry ice. The dry ice will 
melt upon heating to produce a liquid CO2, 
which extracts the plant oils.
Bad habits can be hard to shake, especially in the lab. In a research project led by Dr. Philip Hampton, professor of Chemistry at CSU Channel Islands, efforts are underway to revolutionize the way we do experiments by minimizing waste and the use of toxic substances. Hampton admitted that it’s common practice to “run a lot of experiments that generate significant quantities of waste and use pretty nasty reagents,” through use of antique methods often dating back to the early 1900s. The goal here Hampton said is to “develop a paradigm shift in how we think about running reactions,” while still retaining the “same experience in the laboratory for the students.”

Samantha Guhan (pictured above) is working with Hampton to develop a liquid CO2 extraction experiment aimed to retire a steam distillation method. “The steam distillation of plant material generates both organic and aqueous waste,” said Hampton. “In contrast, the liquid CO2 experiment uses only dry ice and the isolated plant oil can be dissolved in only 2 mL of organic solvent.” Other green chemistry projects underway in Hampton’s lab include replacing acid catalysts with polymeric resins to reduce chemical waste, the development of a new aqueous Wittig reaction that would generate fewer side products and continuous processing reactions that Hampton said can result in “very small quantities of material being made at any given moment.” In general the promotion of microscale chemistry, or small-scale chemistry, has significantly contributed to the development of greener experiments.

Though the advantages to using such techniques are clearly significant, there have been criticisms. One concern is that the skills students will acquire while working with microscale kits won’t be easily translatable to a job in the industry. Hampton reassured that this drawback is easily remedied through the employment of a few specially selected macroscale experiments where students can gain experience “making larger quantities of something, doing a typical distillation or doing a typical separatory funnel extraction.”

In addition to reducing waste, Hampton’s campaign for change also promotes a safer world. He mentioned that with the chemical company fires in Japan and other environmental issues taking place on a global scale this is a “prime time for us to be thinking about how we can do things safer.” Contact Dr. Hampton in the Chemistry Department if you are interested in joining the team to develop ways to swap out our old-fashioned approaches with new green chemistry techniques.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The disappearance of Xenon, thought to be present in abundance on early earth, has baffled scientists for decades. Now new evidence backs up a theory that Xenon has displaced the silicon in quartz (SiO2) and has been literally under our noses in the earths crust.

In the 1970s scientists noticed a mysterious lack of Xenon in the earths atmosphere and mantle. Estimates suggested that upwards of 90% of the Xenon thought to be on early earth had vanished seemingly without a trace. Some speculated that the Xenon escaped into space or was frozen into ice caps; however, the plentiful presence of all of the other noble gases threw a wrench in many of these early theories.

Though Xenon is a noble gas, typically inert by nature, it is the most reactive of all the noble gases. In 2005 it was proposed that under high-temperature and high-pressure conditions it would be possible for Xenon to displace Silicon in SiO2. While the theory explained the lack of Xenon in the earth’s atmosphere and mantle, a new mystery arose: Prior to now XeO3 and XeO4 were the only known Xenon Oxides; where was the Xenon Dioxide (XeO2)?

A team of Canadian researchers provided this missing link to the Silicon displacement theory with results from the first ever synthesis and spectroscopic characterization of XeO2 published in the 22nd of February issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. The researchers found XeO2 to have an extended network in which xenon is linked to four neighboring oxygen atoms in a XeO4 square-planar geometry.

Since scientists are being made to chuck their previous assumption that noble gases are always going to behave in an inert fashion, these findings may change the way geochemists do business altogether.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Photo by Daniel Bonneau
Ashley Bonneau, a senior at CI and president of the Free Radicals Chemistry Club, awaited my interrogation as she sipped her coffee outside the raucous student union last Wednesday. Little would you know that the mind of a science rockstar resided in the body of this humble soft-spoken girl.

Bonneau just had her final graduate school interview at Princeton University last weekend. She described the interview process as nothing short of nerve-racking. “I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Bonneau admitted, “whether or not I needed to break out my biochemistry textbook and brush up on the basics.” In the end it must have gone well since she has already been accepted into 3 programs she applied for including Molecular and Cell Biology, and Genetic and Developmental programs at Yale University. “Going into the application process, Yale was my number one choice,” Bonneau beamed, “so it was very gratifying to be accepted.”

Even though Bonneau and research seem like a perfect fit, the young scientist confessed that she “came into research trying to fulfill checkmarks for a medical school application.” Bonneau says she fell in love with the “excitement of the discovery.” Now a veteran researcher, Bonneau has two years of research experience working with Dr. Nitika Parmar utilizing RNA interference and a paper in review.

Always a scientist even while cooking, a scale takes the place of measuring cups and a good cooks common sense in her kitchen. “I can’t cook,” she disclosed, “I need exact measurements to the tenth preferably.” I suppose even science superheros have their kryptonite. Ashley Bonneau is a jack-of-all-trades and soon to be master of many; just don't ask her to bake you a casserole unless there is an analytical balance handy.