SPRINGFIELD, Ohio — Someday, when a Wittenberg University student uses his cell phone on a hot summer day, he could have researchers from his own university to thank for that capability.
Professors and students in Wittenberg's chemistry department have been conducting nanotechnology research for five years. A paper about the interaction of water with carbon nanotubes, a form of carbon wrapped in tubes about 1/1000th the diameter of a human hair that are capable of conducting electricity, was recently published in the American Chemical Societys Journal of Physical Chemistry B.
The authors of the paper are Assistant Professor of Chemistry Mark Ellison, and students Adam Good of Pittsburgh, Pa., Carrie Kinnaman of Noblesville, Ind., and Nick Padgett of Loveland, Ohio, all members of Wittenbergs class of 2005. The Wittenberg researchers found that humidity in the air could affect the performance of devices such as cell phones, which are expected to make use of nanotechnology in the future, and the paper recommended that carbon nanotubes be somehow enclosed to keep water vapor from coming into contact with them.
"This is an example of how important basic scientific research is," Ellison said. "All of our technology had its beginnings in scientific research. All of the wonderful commercial products and devices that drive our economic growth started as a gleam in the eye of a scientist working in a laboratory."
In this case, it all started in a Wittenberg laboratory when Ellison and Kyle Kissell, class of 2001, conducted research on carbon nanotubes after Kissell made a presentation on the subject during his junior seminar. Kissell, who will soon complete his Ph.D. at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and is working with Nobel Laureate Rick Smalley, helped lay the groundwork for what has become an ongoing Wittenberg research project that has involved nine students and Ellison through the years.
"Anybody in Ohio knows that a summer day often means high humidity, so we decided to determine what happens to nanotubes when they are exposed to water vapor," Ellison said. "We found that water molecules can get through little holes in the tubes and go inside of the tubes. More importantly, we found that some water molecules will react with the nanotubes at places where the arrangement of carbon atoms of the tube is slightly irregular, called defects."
For the students involved, their collegiate experience is far more complete with the research experience they gained in the chemistry department. All three of the student authors of the nanotechnology paper are moving on to graduate school to study chemistry. Good will start at San Francisco State University in the fall, Kinnaman begins her postgraduate career at Notre Dame University this month, and Padgett will remain at Wittenberg for one more year to finish his degree, continue the nanotechnology research and prepare for graduate school.
"My decision to continue to graduate school was a direct result of my experience doing research with Dr. Ellison," Kinnaman said. "In addition to having a great time, I learned how to deal with a lab that was not prescribed in a manual and did not have a predetermined result. It was very exciting to be published at the end of the process. Overall, this research helped prepare me to be a good chemist in graduate school and my career."
Padgett and Jenny Brigham of Depew, N.Y., class of 2006, are studying the interaction of alcohols with carbon nanotubes this summer. Ellison said that since alcohols have similar properties to water, the research team is exploring whether alcohols will interact with nanotubes the same way. Early results indicate that they do not.
Ellison said that while the nanotechnology research is not specifically a part of the universitys curriculum, students involved with it have given formal presentations on their work as part of the chemistry departments junior/senior seminar program. In addition, students tell their professors that making progress toward solving real-world problems is extremely worthwhile.
"Every student who has done research with me has told me that it hasnt been anything like they expected," Ellison said. "They expected something similar to the chemistry labs they do as part of their chemistry courses. These labs are cookbook experiments in which students follow a set procedure to get (mostly) a predetermined result."
"This is the way almost everyone teaches chemistry labs because it allows students to learn different techniques and how to use certain instruments," Ellison added. "Research in chemistry is a quest to learn something new, something that nobody else has discovered yet. The only way to have students learn it is to have them do it. Doing research is the only way that students can gain an appreciation for how scientific knowledge is obtained. Research is an extremely valuable experience for students."
It could be even more valuable to that future Wittenberg student with an important call to make.
— Ryan Maurer 087-05