Solid-state materials chemist Benny Chan’s research focuses on finding and synthesizing new compounds. He’s especially interested in discovering materials that have superconductive or thermo-electric properties.
The former compounds, which conduct electricity with zero resistance, can be used in everything from magnetic levitation to medical instrumentation. The latter compounds, which can convert temperature differences into electricity, have applications ranging from refrigeration to energy conservation.
In recent years, Chan has discovered several new compounds that have these properties. His work, surprisingly enough, often begins not in the lab but by hitting the books.
Assisted by his research team of undergraduates, Chan often starts by reviewing the literature to get an idea of how “putting certain elements together might make something interesting,” he said. “But that’s about all we start with. From there, we have no idea what the compounds [will be], how the atoms [will be] arranged, [nor] what kind of properties [will] come out of them.”
This discovery approach to doing chemistry—as Chan jokingly described it: “mix some stuff together, see what you get, then figure out what it does later”—is typical for solid-state chemists, he said.
“A lot of the stuff we’re working on now we discovered by accident, particularly with thermo-electrics,” Chan explained. “We started ‘playing’ in that area, and once we started finding those compounds, we understood where to find the next ones.”
Chan takes full advantage of the School of Science’s single-crystal x-ray diffractometer. That instrument, acquired in 2010 with a National Science Foundation grant, is an incredibly rare find at a primarily undergraduate institution such as TCNJ, Chan said. It reflects x-rays off the electrons around the atoms in a single crystal, which allows Chan and his students to calculate the positions of all the atoms and thus determine the full three-dimensional arrangement of the atoms of the new compounds.
The work isn’t without its challenges. For example, in 2007 the team discovered a compound that exhibited superconducting properties, but since then they’ve been unable to reproduce its synthesis. “We can’t seem to grow the crystals big enough to analyze them anymore,” Chan explained. “We did it a few times, but the student [who was working on it] is gone.”
Such a statement provides evidence of the important role undergraduates can play in a professor’s research at TCNJ, where faculty members are more than just teachers—they’re also mentors to and research partners with their students, an arrangement that benefits both parties.
That’s something that Chan, who in addition to his faculty position directs faculty-student scholarly and creative-collaboration activities at the College, is well aware of. In this other role, Chan oversees the College’s Mentored Undergraduate Summer Experience (MUSE)—an intensive, eight-week program that gives TCNJ students the opportunity to work in close, mentored collaboration with faculty on scholarly and creative projects in their disciplines.
Chan pointed out that while other schools offer summer research programs, they often cater exclusively to students in the sciences, engineering, or psychology—disciplines in which it’s traditional to have the type of close mentor-mentee relationship that MUSE fosters. But since its inception, TCNJ’s MUSE program has welcomed faculty and students from every major department, he said.
“We’ve found that MUSE is a high-impact pedagogy that all students should be able to participate in,” Chan said.
This year’s MUSE program—which Chan said was the largest yet in terms of the numbers of students and faculty who participated—was no exception. Despite seeing a 25 percent increase in applications for MUSE funding, which made the application process “more competitive than ever,” the committee funded collaborations from all of TCNJ’s seven schools, Chan said.
“That’s unique, because there are a lot of disciplines where having collaborators is very rare—where most of the scholarship or creative work is done on the solo level. I’m very happy that so many faculty across the campus have developed mentoring and collaboration strategies that benefit the faculty member’s scholarship and the students’ education,” Chan said.