Senior Alex Volkov’s summer came to a movie-esque end last year, as after months of trying to create a “green” chemical reaction with a carbon-silicone output of higher than a 24 percent yield, on the last day he changed up his solution to something new and the yield spiked to 97 percent, just shy of the ideal green output of 100 percent.
As Volkov’s honors project comes to an end, TKS caught up with him about his year-long work.
The Knox Student: What is green chemistry?
Alex Volkov: We’re trying to achieve more efficient energy. Essentially, we’re trying to synthesize things with the most effective and energy economical way. For this purpose we used catalysts … They are supposed to speed up the process of a reaction [and] they’re supposed to lower the activation energy. … Most of the time people pressurize things, boil them, do all kinds of what we call “non-ambient conditions” to achieve what you need. But if you use catalysts, they help you out…. In industry, people use heavy metals such as platinum, nickel – they are very expensive and very highly toxic. Our research is based on iron. We use iron at the heart of our catalyst, at the heart of our research. … I’m interested in how this iron catalyst can work to join carbon and silicone together. The applications of that are huge, like making adhesives and sealants on medical tubing or electronic insolation.
TKS: How did you become interested in green chemistry?
AV: We have a great professor, her name is [Assistant Professor of Chemistry] Helen Hoyt ‘01. She actually went to Knox, too, then she went to Berkeley to get her Ph.D, and at Berkeley they have this green chemistry ideology, or school of green chemistry, where she embraced those principles and brought them back here at Knox. Last year, I was a pre-med student, not caring much about chemistry, and at some point I took this course “Green Chemistry,” and we learned about all those things, especially things like atomic economy. In a lot of organic transformations, you’re worried about the product, but there is also waste you create. So in green chemistry we care about things like atomic economy, essentially how much of the atoms you put in the reaction and how much you get out of them.
TKS: How does the process work?
AV: The first part was to synthesize our catalyst. This catalyst, they come with different skeletons. You can have “hands ups” or “hands down” [describing the ends of the skeleton which are perpendicular to the main skeleton]. … That’s one factor that we want to see if it has any influence on our catalysis [acceleration of a chemical reaction]. To make this catalyst, the next thing is we need to activate it. The activation is another process, because you need to figure out the best solvent, what is the best activator, how those things work together. Once you figure this out, you can work to use this catalyst to essentially add the substrates. … You put the substrates in and you see how much of the yield you get in terms of your product C.
TKS: What are your post-grad plans?
AV: I just heard from Iowa State University. They have a very good program in inorganic chemistry. Green chemistry is a sub-division of inorganic chemistry, because we used transition metals. They have a few people who are doing green chemistry. They are trying to capture CO2 – carbon dioxide – and make a more valuable use of it, transform into more valuable chemicals, because CO2 in the air is not good because we produce it in such huge amounts.
TKS: What do you recommend for students planning to pursue Honors Projects, specifically in the sciences?
AV: In science, it’s a challenge, especially in chemistry. You have no guarantee that anything you are doing will work. I was to a certain extent lucky to get the certain results that I’m presenting this spring to my Honors committee. I guess that one of the things I wish for people is having enthusiasm. You have to keep trying, to be persistent, but once you figure something out it will be fun. … As I told you with my story of my optimization research, it was not something I discovered right away. I had to try something, figure out, okay, this didn’t work, this worked, use this solvent, use a different solvent – and so you kind of progress and grow in your understanding of what’s going on. I just wish patience and enthusiasm, and hard work. … It’s a story to tell, too.