Over the summer, St. John Fisher College’s Chemistry Professor Alexey Ignatchenko received a grant of more than $200,000 from the National Science Foundation. This grant went towards furthering research in the study of the fundamental science of catalytic reactions in Fisher labs. However, Ignatchenko and his students have actually been working on the project since the summer of 2017. Students Morgan Springer, Jordan Walker, and William Brenessel are contributors on the publication.
The research is focused on capturing the crystal shape of acetoacitic acid and several other chemicals. Once the chemical is crystalline, it is run through an X-ray machine and a type of “skeleton” view of the molecule that shows the bond distance, bond angles, and molecule structure. One of the biggest struggles Ignatchenko and his students faced when conducting the study was the difficulty of obtaining a crystal of acetoacitic acid, as it is very sensitive to water and heat. However, one cold and dry winter morning, Ignatchenko was able to quickly take the crystals from the freezer into the chilly Rochester winter air in order to preserve it.
Chemistry major Jordan Walker, who is now a senior, was invited as a freshman to join Igantchenko in conducting the research after he showed a strong aptitude to chemistry. While the pandemic stunted his progress, he still has been dedicating time to the project for over three years. This fall especially, Walker remembers “working really hard everyday because I knew I could get sent home everyday.” Spending hours collecting samples and data, he did as much work as he could while he had the opportunity to be there.
This project is, as Ignatchenko refers to it, “a small grain in the foundation” of research that will eventually add to the bigger picture. As they studied the organic reactions on the surface of a variety of molecules, they were able to simulate the presence of acetoacitic acid on a catalyst. A catalyst is something that is used to speed up chemical reactions, and due to the microsecond half-life of acetoacitic acid it was very difficult to prove. One of the real-life uses Igatchenko and Walker see the publication is increasing the efficiency and chemical stability of biofuels.
The publication was accepted into the Journal of Physical Chemistry, which is a competitive scientific journal, which was a high honor for both the students and Ignatchenko to be a part of.