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Making New Molecules

FullTextImage/img/@altAngelo Kirchon '16 and Col. Daren Timmons observe the liquid crystal properties of a new molecule. – VMI Photo by H. Lockwood McLaughlin.

Cadet Chemistry Research Yields Exciting Results

LEXINGTON, Va., July 18, 2014 – The VMI chemistry department continues to go where no one has gone before.

Funded by the Summer Undergraduate Research Program, Col. Darren Timmons and three cadet researchers spent the first summer session exploring the world of liquid crystals, and the group has made significant progress.

“They are making molecules that have never existed before,” said Timmons of cadets Angelo Kirchon ’16, Hayden Alford ’16 and Austin Ross ’17, who spent the first part of summer working in the chemistry lab. “In addition to their liquid crystal properties, we are now studying a property we didn’t anticipate” – one that could be used in sensors or other devices.

The program that makes it all happen – typically referred to as “SURP” – has been part of chemistry department programming for nearly four decades. It paid the cadet researchers a stipend, offering them the opportunity to spend about eight hours a day, five days a week, in the lab developing liquid crystalline materials, substances that act as self-organizing fluids.

“Our primary goal is to train the students in science, and having the private funds allows us to run the program,” said Timmons. “It is a great thing for the department and for our students. We think the students learn science best when they are engaged in real projects. Having the funds available for that simplifies the process.”

Timmons noted that many schools don’t have much internal funding for student stipends, so they must seek out external grants, diverting faculty from valuable lab and teaching time. Added Timmons, “Do you spend all of your extra time writing the grant that takes six months to hear back, or do you keep working in the lab with the students?”

Kirchon, who began working on the science of liquid crystals with Timmons last year, has created a whole series of the never-before-seen molecules. He’s ready to start writing up his research. Alford and Ross, who are relatively new to the project, will continue to create new molecules when they return to the laboratory in the fall.

While the team’s current focus is on building these molecules, they keep an eye on potential applications. Liquid crystals are essential to liquid crystal display – LCD – units and also have some medical applications, such as in thermometers. Timmons said they haven’t constructed their first device yet, but that hasn’t dampened the cadets’ enthusiasm.

“We’ve sort of stumbled into this world of liquid crystals with our molecules,” Timmons said, “and thought, ‘Wow! This is really interesting; let’s explore this.’ And as we learn about them, I’m confident we’ll be able to turn them into a useful device.

“We do a lot of dancing in the lab when we make a new liquid crystal,” added Timmons. “It’s really exciting to see the properties you had hoped for.

The work of the Timmons group will be on display at the American Chemical Society convention this fall and at the VMI Undergraduate Research Symposium, generally held in April, both of which will give the cadets valuable experience making professional presentations.

–Chris Floyd