Changing the World with Chemistry
By: Mike Mazzotta & Dr. Darrin Smith

To me, there is no greater force than scientific research—research that continually brings understanding of the physical world to the curious and that has impact, ranging from advancing medical treatments to the ill to providing luxury and entertainment to the bored. It was in high school that I realized this power in research. When I finally decided to become a chemistry major, I dove into research as soon as I possibly could and have been enjoying it every moment since then.

In October of this year, I was fortunate enough to be funded by the Honors Program to attend the National Collegiate Honors Council Conference in Phoenix, AZ and present some of this research with my mentor, Dr. Darrin Smith. The research we presented comes from one of many vital projects with the Center for Renewable and Alternative Fuel Technologies (CRAFT) pertaining to the great effort being made there to establish a biofuel production system feasible for the state of Kentucky. This system specifically addresses the process for converting switchgrass (and other plant materials) to a biofuel. While this may seem like a simple goal, there are numerous aspects that need to be thoroughly investigated. A basic overview of the biofuels production process involves the initial growing and harvesting of switchgrass followed by breaking the plant material down through either chemical or physical methods. Once broken down and subjected to specific enzymes, one can obtain sugars that can then be consumed by strains of algae that have high oil content. This oil can be extracted from the algae and converted to a useable biodiesel. While many steps exist in this process that still need to be investigated, the focus of my research presentation was the analysis of sugars that resulted from specific chemical or physical modification of different plant materials.

This analysis is important to gauge the effectiveness of sugar production using various chemical or physical methods of breaking down plant materials. This sugar analysis has been performed using an established method known as high-performance liquid chromatography with refractive index detection (HPLC-RI) that can efficiently separate individual sugar compounds from each other within a complex solution and then allow for determining the amount (e.g. quantitation) of these sugars when compared to known standard materials. The knowledge we are seeking regarding how to effectively liberate sugars from the plant material is necessary in order to optimize growing algae that will make this biofuel process logistically and economically viable.

This research project provided me with an opportunity to work as part of a team that has provided results for the advancement of biofuels in Kentucky.

While HPLC offers the ability to quantitate a multitude of sugars in various complex pretreatment solutions, expensive organic solvents are needed to continually flow through the system; those solvents then need to be properly disposed of after use. This use of large amounts of organic solvent does not allow the analytical method to be considered “green,” which is unfavorable. In addition, running a single sample using an HPLC method can take approximately 7-10 minutes, which consumes great amounts of time when running a series of samples. These two major disadvantages of HPLC analysis spurred the idea to try to develop a more efficient analytical method. Dr. Smith (with research group members) has recently utilized a novel instrument set-up, known as Direct Analysis in Real Time mass spectrometry (DART-MS), to analyze pretreatment samples rapidly without the use of organic solvents that can produce the same quantitative ability of HPLC.

This research project provided me with an opportunity to work as part of a team that has provided results for the advancement of biofuels in Kentucky. And it is with this work with Dr. Smith that I have gained so much knowledge out of the classroom; numerous “lectures” were in fact conversations that randomly occurred as we sat around an instrument, waiting for it to run a sample. But it is not only the knowledge that my mentor shared with me that came from this research, but the bond it forged between us. Traveling to Phoenix, Anaheim, and even the Kentucky capitol building has provided me with multiple opportunities to connect with Dr. Smith, and that has been one of the most rewarding aspects of this collaboration. The analytical chemistry methodologies that I have been fortunate to use with my research project are examples of this force that scientific research provides to keep the world around us constantly changing, providing betterment for future generations.  

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