Stanford researcher receives national award

March 21, 2000

Recognized for directing student's outstanding research

Chemist Richard N. Zare of Stanford, Calif., will be honored on March 28 by the world's largest scientific society for directing graduate student Alex Kandel's outstanding research on fundamental molecular behavior and reactions. Teacher and student will receive the Nobel Laureate Signature Award for Graduate Education in Chemistry from the American Chemical Society at its national meeting in San Francisco.

When Kandel joined Zare's research team at Stanford University, 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.

"We chose this project to really understand how chemical reactions occur," explained Zare. "If we can understand the simple reactions on a very deep level, we can generalize to more complex ones."

They 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, they learned that when methane is excited it starts looking like ethane. "That was a big surprise," said Kandel, who is now a post-doctoral researcher at Pennsylvania State University.

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. "Sometimes I wasn't sure who was directing whom."

Kandel helped Zare develop a laser technique called "photoloc." The advance is an example of basic instrument research for which funding is hard to come by these days, Zare said. "Yet it's out of this kind of research that medical MRI, the global positioning system, bar code readers and a host of other useful devices arose - sometimes decades later and in ways no one could have predicted."

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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