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AU professor, collaborators earn $750,000 for pioneering research
4/02/13

Dr. Geoffrey Bowers, Alfred University (AU) assistant professor of chemistry, and his collaborators were awarded a $750,000 grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Basic Energy Sciences (BES), funding that will enable continuation of their research on molecular interactions for three more years. 

“At the conclusion of the upcoming grant, our work at Alfred will have been funded by the Department of Energy for six years, creating a foundation for what I hope will be a lasting relationship between the DOE and our institution,” said Bowers.

Fostering an inter-university relationship with Michigan State University’s Dean of Natural Sciences R. James Kirkpatrick, Bowers’ studies are a part of a multinational research effort examining the way molecules stick and/or move when liquids and solids come into contact with them. Due to their significant roles, funding is split between both AU and Michigan State.

“This is a great opportunity for Alfred, its students, the chemistry division, and for me,” said Bowers.

The project is developing the knowledge by which high-level nuclear waste can be transported and sequestered, especially when the solution is a highly corrosive base. However, because the BES funds fundamentals-based research rather than applications-based research, the total potential for energy related innovation to develop from Bowers’ project is not known.

“We want to understand where molecules live and how molecules move on short time and length scales when water and minerals come together in our soil, fresh water, and oceans,” said Bowers.

The AU researchers are primarily using spectroscopy to denote the effects that natural organic matter has on molecular structure, dynamics and interfacial behaviors at clay-water junctures.

Bowers’ team uses nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) to conduct spectroscopic investigations of structure and molecular motion.

NMR is based upon the phenomenon in which nuclei rotate at a characteristic rate in the presence of a large magnetic field, making it possible to probe short-range processes by manipulating the magnetic field as it is received by the sample.

 The NMR spectrometer works similarly to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in that they both use magnetic fields to draw information from an object. The largest difference here is that MRIs use the response of protons in water to magnetic fields to create an image, whereas NMRs are sensitive to many other nuclei and generate frequency data sheets containing information about the local chemical environment in the sample and molecular motion.

Spectroscopic information is used in conjunction with molecular dynamics and quantum chemical computational studies to draw detailed conclusions that cannot be attained with either method alone.

Bowers and his colleagues’ work yields information pertinent to pollutant transport and sequestration, carbonate mitigation of atmospheric CO2,and geochemical weathering of minerals.

Bowers holds regular videoconferences with Britain’s Ozgur Yazadin and France’s Andrey G. Kalinichev as well as helpful correspondence with an Australian research team led by Julian Gale.

The DOE BES grant provides a stipend for one undergraduate student to join the research team each of the coming three summers. With the additional support of on-campus funding, undergraduates also join Bowers and colleagues at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) each summer to perform experiments using a suite of cutting-edge instruments not available anywhere else. A 600-acre research facility, PNNL houses the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL) and the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Facility (ARM).

This year, Alfred University student Brennan Ferguson will be visiting EMSL with Drs. Bowers and Kirkpatrick. She is a second-year, double major in chemistry and environmental science who has been conducting research with Bowers since the beginning of this spring semester.

The undergraduate research stipend goes hand in hand with Bowers’ initiative to champion undergraduate research at AU as a powerful teaching, advising, and professional development tool for students and faculty alike.

In speaking about how the grant may affect AU’s vitality Bowers said, “I hope our work and success with the DOE program helps to show that exciting new things are happening at Alfred University and in the Division of Chemistry, and that our students have unique opportunities to learn alongside their faculty about how the world works.”