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Students study energy generation and storage in metal oxide films

August 29, 2013

During the summer, Lewis & Clark students continue to work hard in their fields of study. By collaborating with faculty on research projects, students are able to engage their curiosity, expand their learning, and prepare for life after college, all while making meaningful contributions to scholarship.

Keira Roberts ’14 and Luciano Santino ’14 are working with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Anne Bentley to study the controlled growth of metal oxide electrodes as they relate to energy storage and generation. In the following Q&A, the team members reflect on their experience.

What are you researching? What question or problem are you trying to answer/solve with your research?

Roberts: I am researching the stability of gold nanoparticles with a variety of capping agents under different environmental conditions.

Santino: And I’m working on improving manganese oxide thin films for use as pseudocapacitors.

Does your research have any potential applications in the real world, or will it influence other work in your field?

Roberts: As nanoparticles are used more in consumer products, more nanoparticle waste from manufacturing and research will be released into the environment. I am trying to learn more about the fate of this nanoparticle waste- how will it interact with the environment? How stable is it under various environmental conditions?

Santino: Manganese oxide is being extensively studied right now because it has an ideal crystal structure for charge storage. Essentially, it’s a cheap way to make part of a very fast charging and discharging ‘supercapacitor’ which can be used for anything from defibrillators to fast charging bike lights and cellphones.

Is any of your research taking place off campus? If so, what’s that experience like?

Roberts: I use the Transmission Electron Microscope at PSU to determine the size of the nanoparticles I synthesize. It is a much larger piece of equipment than we need to have at Lewis & Clark, so it is helpful to have access to it when we do need it, without having to purchase, house, and care for it full time. It is great to visit the labs and meet graduate students and scientists there.

Santino: I use some instruments at PSU as well. Their high-resolution scanning electron microscope is useful for characterizing the surface of the films I create, and their X-Ray Diffractometer allows me to determine the crystal structure of the films.

What first sparked your interest in this research area?

Roberts: This is my third summer research experience. I have been excited about doing research since my first internship and wanted the opportunity to do chemistry research with a professor at Lewis & Clark. I wanted to do research with an environmental focus and I’ve always liked working with solutions. Nanomaterials research is especially interesting to me because it is a diverse field with many different applications, from medical treatments to faster computers.

Santino: I’ve always been really interested in chemistry research. Materials chemistry is particularly interesting because it’s so versatile. There are 98 elements that naturally occur on Earth, and we haven’t gotten anywhere near figuring out what the limits of these fundamental building blocks are. Even when we think we’ve figured everything about a particular element out, like carbon, someone discovers buckminsterfullerene, or graphene.

How has working closely with faculty influenced your education?

Roberts: For me, hands-on learning is the most effective way to learn. It is extraordinary to have the opportunity to do research in a setting where I get so much feedback. I particularly like having the freedom to work at my own pace and try new things while still feeling very supported in the lab.

Santino: Like Keira said, we are given as much room as we want without being left in the dark. It’s this sort of trust and confidence that our mentor has in us that fosters our creativity as scientists and allows us to discover on our own.

How do you hope your experiences this summer will impact your future studies or professional pursuits?

Roberts: I’ve wanted to go into chemistry research for a while, and I think this summer has been a great introduction into what that career path looks like. I developed a good skill set this summer and feel very well prepared for future research opportunities. I will be able to continue my research during the academic year, which is an exceptional opportunity to apply what I’m learning from my classes to a hands-on setting.

Santino: In addition, I don’t think I would have felt nearly as confident as I do going into a graduate program now had I not the opportunity to take part in summer research.

About the program

The John S. Rogers Science Research Program allows students to participate in graduate-level research with an emphasis on strengthening their communication skills by requiring them to present their findings. This summer, 40 students are pursuing topics that range from artificial intelligence and motivating behavior to holographic tweezers and zebra fish. Working closely with peers and faculty members, students undertake research questions and present their work in two public venues.

“We’re not asking you, ‘What’s the answer?’ We’re saying, ‘What’s the question?’” said Michael Broide, director of the Rogers program and chair of the physics department. “I think what sets our program apart is that regardless of what project you are on, we’re all going to come together as a group to present what we’re doing in as accessible a way as possible. In science, it’s such an important skill to be able to explain cogently what you’re doing.”

Students make their final research presentation at the Rogers summer science poster session, held in conjunction with the Science Without Limits Symposium. Scheduled for September 18, the poster session is free and open to the public.

Department of Chemistry Rogers Summer Research Program

Zibby Pillote ’14 contributed to this story.

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