Chemistry professor secures grant to involve students in petroleum research

December 03, 2012

A Marshall University professor has secured a three-year, $65,000 grant to do petroleum research with the assistance of undergraduate students.

The funding, which was awarded by the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund through a competitive process, will begin in 2013.

According to Dr. Laura McCunn, assistant chemistry professor, she and seven undergraduate students will use the funds to study how several specific molecules decompose when they are heated in the absence of oxygen.

McCunn says the results of their research will help shed light on biofuels and the mechanisms for combustion of conventional fossil fuels like petroleum. She and the students are particularly interested in exploring the decomposition of aldehydes, which occur as byproducts in biofuels and can be emitted from biodiesel engines.

"Our results will contribute to a model for the breakdown of fuels at high temperatures or for combustion of fuel mixtures that are not fully oxygenated," she said. "It's significant in the petroleum field because this model could help predict the pollutants or soot that could be generated from particular fuel mixtures."

To conduct the experiments, McCunn and the students will use an instrument they constructed in her laboratory. The hyperthermal nozzle they built will allow the research team to cause the thermal breakdown of sample molecules in an oxygen-free environment. The products of the process will be condensed and trapped for analysis using a special spectrometer.

McCunn says her lab is already using the process to study one aldehyde, but the grant will allow them to extend their experiments to include two more.

The grant program funding the project is aimed specifically at involving undergraduates in advanced research activities in preparation for graduate school or employment.

McCunn said, "Research is a really important part of the students' education. They will learn things in my lab that can't be taught in a traditional classroom. The hands-on laboratory work teaches them problem-solving skills, perseverance and how to work independently."

She said another important skill the students will learn from the project is how to explain their research to various audiences.

"I'll be taking them to scientific meetings where they'll have the chance to present their work," she said. "It's important to be able to explain your research and your findings, because that's a big part of being a scientist."

She added that the students will also be participating in events like the annual Undergraduate Research Day at the West Virginia State Capital, giving them the chance to talk about their work with non-scientists.

"Undergraduate Research Day is particularly exciting because the people in our state legislature get a chance to see how engaged our students are and what types of real-world research they are doing at Marshall. It's also a chance for the students to practice explaining to the general public what their research means," she added.

McCunn said undergraduate research programs like the one funded through this grant have enhanced the Department of Chemistry at Marshall.

"Because of research opportunities like this, the quality of our students is just getting better and better. We are better as a whole because of undergraduate research," she said.

Marshall University Research Corporation

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