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Chemical Engineering Receives Major Grants

November 18, 1999

Jason Eness

Each year the National Science Foundation allows universities to submit only two grant proposals to acquire new equipment under its Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) program. This year, the NSF funded both of Tulane's proposals.

After an internal competition among Tulane's research departments, the university chose two proposals from the chemical engineering department to submit to the MRI program. Brian Mitchell, associate professor of chemical engineering, and Vijay John, professor of chemical engineering, were the principal writers of the proposals.

Mitchell requested a 200-kilo electron voltage scanning transmission electron microscope (STEM). John submitted a proposal for the upgrading of an existing nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) instrument. Both instruments will be operational next summer.

"Procuring better research equipment has a ripple effect at the university," John says. "If you have a good instrument, you get high-quality data, so your publications are high-quality publications, which means you publish in better journals and the researchers get better publications," he says. "That allows them to write more competitive proposals for funding and get more research funds, which helps in educating undergraduate and graduate students. Researchers already are planning projects using the new instruments."

Mitchell, along with other researchers at the university, plans to use the STEM to study the chemical makeup and molecular structures of compounds such as metals or volcanic rocks.

"This instrument will allow us to analyze chemically what our materials are composed of and how the atoms are distributed in materials, because we can get very high magnifications, almost to the point of seeing individual bonds between atoms," Mitchell says. "That's something we couldn't do before."

Mitchell says faculty members in other departments also will use this instrument in research ranging from developing new, more efficient methods for processing petroleum to studying the chemical evolution of Mexican volcanoes.

John says the NMR will help Tulane researchers understand the behavior of individual molecules of certain compounds. He says one project planned for this instrument involves observing a substance change from a watery composition into a gel state. "If you can get a fluid that goes from a low viscosity to a high viscosity very rapidly," John says, "this may have applications in brakes."

Both John and Mitchell are quick to point out that although the chemical engineering department procured the equipment, any Tulane department can use the instruments, which will reside in the Coordinated Instrumentation Facility (CIF) on campus. This facility houses the university's shared research equipment in a centralized location.

"When you write these proposals, you have to explain to the reviewers where it is going to be housed and who'll use it," John says. "A facility like the CIF is a very powerful argument saying it is not just for chemical engineering, it is universitywide."

The MRI grants are partially matched by funds from Tulane. For the STEM, the NSF granted $303,000 while Tulane paid $230,000, and for the NMR, the MRI granted $230,000, while Tulane covered $90,000.

"The fact that students also will use the instruments shows how high-powered research equipment can be valuable as teaching aids," John says. "The CIF makes it a policy that students work with the operators who teach the students how to operate the machines and run samples," John says. "They don't have to go scrambling around campus to different buildings asking, 'Can I use your machine?' They just go straight up to the CIF."
 
"When they learned the NSF funded both proposals, other members of the chemical engineering department were elated," says Mitchell.

In the entire United States, the MRI awarded only six such grants. Of these, Tulane received two. Rather than attribute this good fortune to luck, however, Mitchell credits the strength of Tulane's research programs. "The odds are certainly not in favor of both of the proposals being funded," Mitchell says. "You make your own luck."

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