Evan Haas ’15 dedicated a winter Faculty-Sponsored Activity (FSA) to the pursuit of a cleaner, greener catalyst for a chemical process that is used in various industries. After much time, trial, and error, he succeeded.
What exactly were you trying to do in your winter FSA, and why?
My work involved what is called an “olefin epoxidation” reaction, which is incredibly important in fields such as adhesives and pharmaceuticals. The reaction doesn’t occur naturally, so it must be prodded along by a catalyst, a metal-ion-centered ring of carbons and other atoms. Currently, this is performed using “Jacobsen’s catalyst” and sodium hypochlorite (household bleach) as an oxidant. However, bleach is far from ideal. Chlorine solutions are toxic, the resulting salt wastes must be disposed of, and many functional groups in complex organic molecules are sensitive to bleach, so the reaction destroys parts of the molecule that are not involved in target reactions. So I was looking to find similar catalysts that would work with hydrogen peroxide, a “green” oxidant that is much safer and cleaner to use. A catalyst that works well in the epoxide oxidation might also impart insight into possible compounds that would work for methane oxidation.
How did you approach this?
My FSA involved reading tons of literature and trying to think of some catalysts that might work, then synthesizing and testing them. I made a range of these compounds and tested their catalytic activity in a variety of ways.
You dabbled a bit in organic chemistry in the past. What do you like most about Mr. Maqubela’s organic chemistry class?
I love how it focuses on “mechanisms.” Mechanisms trace the path of electrons during a particular reaction and give you a fundamental understanding of what is going on. They are a truly wonderful way of exploring reactions. We also don’t follow a textbook; although that might seem annoying at first, it allows a level of freedom to explore what we want.
Can you describe one of your typical lab sessions?
The average day would consist of going to the lab, setting up the experiment (measuring out reactants, obtaining the appropriate glassware, heating the solvent to proper temperature), mixing the reactants in the solution and monitoring the reaction, adding other chemicals as needed, then purifying the finished product. Most of the reactions themselves took anywhere from one-and-a-half to three hours.
How did it feel when your hard work and research paid off?
It was possibly the most amazing feeling in the world. There were some points in my research where things seemed to be progressing so slowly, and the chance of success just so distant. However, when it finally succeeded and the test was positive, I was ecstatic. I yelped and went outside and ran around the Circle several times in disbelief, then came back, ran it again, and it worked again. Finally I calmed down enough to tell Dr. [Sandra] Kelly, but the feeling was unparalleled, and reminded me of why I love science so much.
The Circle Voice featured an article on you by Ethan Woo ’16. Ethan mentions that you had followed the work of Dr. Elena Rybak Akimova at Tufts University. What drew you to her research and how has it influenced your outlook on science?
One thing that struck me about her research was the breadth of it: she doesn’t just focus on one field. Her lab is a leader in two: catalysis and “stopped flow kinetics.” The first, catalysis, drew me in because in our modern age around 90 percent of industrial chemical processes are performed via catalysts. They are essential to our modern society, and hold the potential for solutions to our energy crisis, global warming, clean water, and more. They are an incredibly diverse and powerful tool. Professor Rybak is currently using them to try and develop a catalyst for methane oxidation. Methane, a cheap, abundant fuel, is an explosive gas and difficult to handle. However, partially oxidizing it into methanol produces a clean-burning, manageable liquid fuel already used in many combustion engines. It offers the chance of a green fuel to stave off our energy shortages.
The second of these two fields, stopped flow kinetics, is the really unique one. It uses an instrument called a stopped flow spectrometer to measure the amount of light a solution absorbs as a reaction takes place. It does this with such precision and speed that it allows us to gain incredible insight into how reactions really take place on the molecular level, electron by electron. This fascinated me, and I of course wanted to learn more. The science she is performing helps us glean insight into the invisible. It takes us to the most fundamental, most basic levels of the science and provides a backbone from which to build bigger and better things. This taught me a valuable lesson: in order to create a new catalyst or really do anything in science, you must be willing to take it back to the ground level and understand what is truly occurring.
Will you continue to refine your research at Tufts this summer?
Yes. The successes at Groton, although important, are preliminary, and I will be continuing to refine and perfect the catalysts over the summer with the much more advanced equipment and greater time available to me there. I hope to be able to finish the project over the summer and learn enough about why my catalyst works to be able to work on a bigger project the summer of my senior year: methane oxidation.
When did you become interested in science? Did your curiosity begin at an early age?
It certainly began at an early age. My father, a professor of chemistry, and my mother, an electrical engineer, instilled in me a love of the scientific values of curiosity and exploration quite early. Whenever I had a day off from school, my father would take me into his lab where I would simply sit, looking around, dazzled by the array of instruments, experiments, and the amazing knowledge of these invisible, tenth of a nanometer sized atoms. My mother often brought home prototypes of new products from Bose, where she worked, and I often got to see the stunning schematics of how these amazing pieces of equipment work. It made we want to be able to understand them. So of course, come middle school science fairs, I had to do either chemistry or optics, my mother’s specialty. So I did, performing simple acid-base reactions and measuring their heat output in one fair and testing the effects of optic filters on light in another. The opportunity to work with “professional” equipment from both of my parents’ labs got me excited, and this first contact with experimental science made me want even more. Combined with simple things, such as performing most of the carpentry on my house growing up, I developed a mind that loved science and engineering.