Southern Utah University’s Chemistry Program recently spearheaded a study of light-capturing molecules and published the results of their innovative exploration in the academic journal Frontiers in Chemistry. Such fundamental research is used to direct innovation and development within increasingly important fields such as photovoltaics, solar harvesting and quantum computing.
Chemistry professor, Dr. Jacob Dean conducted the research in collaboration with Dr. Mackay Steffensen, Physical Science Department chair, and physical science students Clay Staheli, Jaxon Barney, Taime Clark, Max Bowles and Bridger Jeppesen.
“My whole career I have had a fascination with how the structure, or atomic design, of a molecule can lead to a real physical behavior when exposed to light,” said Dr. Dean. “The connection from the molecular scale to the ‘big’ scale showcases the real power of chemistry, and I hope it motivates students to appreciate, or dare I say, love chemistry. Our findings could ultimately impact how we design atomically-cheap materials for solar light-harvesting applications, such as spray-on or flexible solar panels made only from carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen.”
The techniques used by the T-Birds in their research are the same used by pharmaceutical companies in the creation of medicine.
“On a more foundational level, this type of research gives us a look into the elegant, molecular world of biology that exists all around us,” said Dr. Dean. “We are only now tapping into that potential to help improve our own quality of life, along with our responsibility to the health of our planet.”
“We found that these molecules are amazing at capturing light, and they have a natural ‘built-in’ tendency to undergo fast twisting motion after that light capture takes place,” said Dr. Dean. “Taking that molecular information and comparing it to their natural environment within plants, algae, and bacteria shows that the twist is either encouraged or completely anchored down by nearby interactions within their protein environments. The difference in environments has been tailored by those organisms to motivate one function or another.”
Dr. Steffensen recommends that students who are interested in conducting undergraduate research visit with their professor to discuss what projects they are currently working on. This project came about after Dr. Dean expressed an interest in studying certain molecules that were not available through a commercial source. Dr. Steffensen helped by working with students to make the target molecules and then passed them on to Dr. Dean for further study.
“Most faculty in the Department of Physical Science are participating in research and are happy to bring new students on board their projects,” said Dr. Steffensen. “Students often worry they need to have a project in mind, however in most cases, faculty members will work to identify a project that both parties agree is worth pursuing.”
Such undergraduate research is stressed within SUU’s Department of Physical Science, offering students a competitive edge when applying for admission to top graduate schools and professional programs. The SUU labs are well equipped, offering students exposure to a variety of modern instrumentation in addition to a modern astronomical observatory and a cutting-edge GIS laboratory. These opportunities make SUU a premier institution for undergraduate science education.
Photo and story courtesy of: Kierstin Pitcher-Holloway of SUU Marketing Communication