New X-ray diffractometers aid teaching and research in chemistry department

New X-ray diffractometers aid teaching and research in chemistry department
chan in focus
Benny Chan, PhD

TCNJ has joined a select group of primarily undergraduate institutions in the country that house both single-crystal and powder X-ray diffractometers. Assistant chemistry professor Benny Chan, PhD, explained that having this instrumentation on campus opens up a wealth of hands-on research opportunities for his students and others in the department.

Chan studies the synthesis and structural characterization of inorganic materials, and much of his research focuses on making new compounds and determining their unique properties. He is especially interested in solid-state materials whose atomic structures lead to “interesting magnetic or thermoelectric properties” that make them useful for a range of applications—from superconductivity to energy conservation to refrigeration.

The single-crystal X-ray diffractometer “is the most important characterization method for my research,” Chan explained. By focusing X-rays onto a pure single crystal, the periodic arrangements of the atoms cause the X-rays to diffract. The instrument allows Chan and his students to precisely determine the full three-dimensional positions of the atoms in the structure with which they are working.

The powder x-ray diffractometer, as its name implies, allows researchers to examine crystalline powders and then determine all the crystalline compounds that are present using a powder diffraction database, Chan said.

“The single crystal is much better at determining all of the positions of the atoms, although the equipment is much more expensive and requires extensive training to use,” Chan said. But the powder diffractometer is simpler and faster, which makes it more conducive to the classroom environment, he added.

Chan incorporated the new instruments into two lab sessions for his spring 2010 Inorganic Chemistry—Structure and Bonding class, and said the chemistry department will soon offer a semester-long crystallography course that utilizes the diffractometers. Students trained in these techniques will be highly recruited for graduate programs and industrial positions, he said.

Funding for the single-crystal diffractometer came from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) major research instrumentation grant program, while the powder diffractometer was purchased with School of Science and chemistry department funding. The costs associated with purchasing and training on the instruments make them a rare find at primarily undergraduate institutes.

Chan said that prior to TCNJ’s purchase of the diffractometers, he had to travel to George Washington University to use that school’s equipment to complete his research. This prohibited him from involving his students in the research process to the extent that he thought they could be.

“They saw the final results, but didn’t see the entire process and how much work it takes to collect the data. Therefore the process didn’t have as much meaning to them,” Chan explained.

Four other faculty members from the chemistry department were co-principal investigators on the NSF grant: Georgia Arvanitis, David Hunt, Stephanie Sen, and Heba Abourahma.

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