Penn State researcher receives national award

March 21, 2000

Recognized for research on molecular behavior and reactions

Alex S. Kandel, a post-doctoral chemistry student at Pennsylvania State University, will be honored on March 28 by the world's largest scientific society for outstanding research on fundamental molecular behavior and reactions. He will receive the Nobel Laureate Signature Award for Graduate Education in Chemistry from the American Chemical Society at its 219th national meeting in San Francisco.

"If you ask really basic questions, you have the possibility of getting really thorough answers," said Kandel. "What's so satisfying is starting to really understand why things happen, rather than just cataloging what happened in an experiment."

Kandel conducted his research with Richard Zare of Stanford University. When Kandel joined Zare's research team, they agreed the new Ph.D. student would study how chlorine atoms interact with methane and ethane, the simplest carbon-based molecules. The details of this reaction, a major means of removing chlorine from the atmosphere, had been surprisingly little studied except in theory.

Kandel's discoveries were significant. He found, for example, that making chlorine react with methane requires energy. Yet the reaction of chlorine and ethane -- very similar to methane -- releases energy. Why the difference? Using lasers to trigger and track the reactions, Kandel learned that when methane is excited it starts looking like ethane. "That was a big surprise," he said.

The graduate student also discovered that a chlorine atom smacks into an unexcited molecule of methane, a reaction similar to two pool balls colliding and bouncing back. In contrast, an excited methane molecule virtually snatches a passing chlorine atom -- a very different dynamic in the same reaction.

"Alex was just one of those students from whom you learn a great deal," said Zare, and then laughed. "Sometimes I wasn't sure who was directing whom."

Kandel has been interested in science nearly all his life. His mother, also a chemist, occasionally took him and his brother to her laboratory. "We'd get to mix up all these smelly chemicals," he remembered, "and we'd use molecular structure kits as toys."

The Nobel Laureate Signature Award for Graduate Education in Chemistry is sponsored by Mallinckrodt Baker Inc. of Phillipsburg, N.J.

A nonprofit organization with a membership of 161,000 chemists and chemical engineers, the American Chemical Society publishes scientific journals and databases, convenes major research conferences, and provides educational, science policy and career programs in chemistry. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

American Chemical Society

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