Generally, solar power technology relies on visible light to generate electricity. But light also has the potential to produce other useful products as well. Many of these come from the field of photochemistry — the study of chemical reactions that occur when atoms or molecules absorb light.
Christopher C. Marvin, assistant professor of chemistry at Hendrix College, has received a grant from one of America’s oldest foundations, Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA), to explore the use of visible light to drive chemical reactions among a set of organic — or carbon-based — molecules.
"Our goal is to use photochemistry to oxidize organic compounds in a way that’s less wasteful than traditional methods." Marvin said. "The reactions we’re studying use light energy and air, two abundant resources."
Although purely fundamental science at this point, his approach may one day hold great potential for creating a more environmentally friendly, energy efficient chemical industry.
To begin what may be a long journey toward better light-based chemistry, Marvin and his students will systematically evaluate a class of organic chemicals called "amino alcohols." They will determine how the bonding patterns of structure of these compounds affect their ability to combine with oxygen molecules when exposed to visible light. (The process of oxygen molecules interacting with other substances is generally known as "oxidation" — in iron, of course, it is more commonly termed "rusting.")
Marvin’s theory, or hypothesis, is that light shining on the amines — molecules derived from ammonia — in these various compounds will drive the formation of ions (that is, atoms with more or fewer orbiting electrons than normal). Further, he’s betting that electrons that become excited and are freed up by the light energy may be readily captured by other atoms in the mix — atoms and molecules trading electrons are at the heart of any chemical reaction.
Marvin received his RCSA award under the foundation’s Cottrell College Science program. It was created in the early 1970s to promote basic research as a vital component of undergraduate education at the nation’s public and private small colleges and universities.
During the past 15 years, the Cottrell College Science Awards, which are carefully reviewed by a panel of top scientists, have supported the research work of about 1,300 early career scientists in 400 institutions.
"These grants provide funds and encouragement for young professors to pursue their research, while at the same time assist them in bringing their students into the lab to participate in real-world research projects," said RCSA President and CEO James M. Gentile. "It is a highly effective way to help young scientists just starting out, as well as to inspire the next generation of students to enter America’s scientific workforce."