A greener way to make paper white: Centre students participate in chemistry research with environmental applications
With four Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified buildings on campus, grants totaling more than $35,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency to aid campus sustainability and the creation of a Green Fund that supports renewable energy, Centre College lives up to its commitment to environmental responsibility. With this in mind, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Kari Young is conducting research with students Karan Aletty ’17 and Bryce Rowland ’17 that they hope may one day contribute to paper production that is more environmentally safe.
Young, Aletty and Rowland are attempting to create iron and manganese coordination complexes that are able to oxidize lignin, the polymer in wood that makes it hard.
“Lignin is what makes kraft paper brown,” explains Young. “In the process of making white paper, the lignin is bleached away. Most of the processes used in the paper industry to do that bleaching require really high temperatures and really harsh reagents that result in some environmentally unfriendly byproducts.”
The team hopes to reduce the number of undesirable byproducts this process creates and has taken inspiration from nature, where white-rot fungus uses iron and manganese to catalyze the degradation of lignin in the presence of hydrogen peroxide. They are making synthetic iron and manganese complexes in order to imitate this lignin-degradation chemistry.
Rowland’s role in the project has been to create ligands, the molecules that bind to the iron and manganese atoms and fine-tune their reactivity. He says he has learned to adjust to the pacing of research, which is often marked by very gradual progress.
“We recently got about eight milligrams of one of the complexes and I was really excited about that,” says Rowland (pictured right). “If you had told me at the beginning of the summer that I’d be excited about eight milligrams worth of product, I would have called you crazy. So it’s a lot of small victories.”
Aletty (pictured below) has been using high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) to track the progress of the decomposition of veratryl alcohol, a smaller, more manageable molecule that serves as a stand-in for lignin. This helps the team determine whether a catalyst is working.
Aletty says he appreciates the close attention from a faculty member that this opportunity affords.
“With this research, a professor is there to guide you, and you know it’s someone you can talk to and trust,” he says. “It gives you a nice gentle entrance into the research, instead of letting you out there on your own in the wild.”
Young believes faculty-student collaborations, such as this, are a hallmark of a Centre education. “Part of the Centre Experience is contact with faculty, so when students work with a particular faculty member, they both really get to know each other and I think that is a special part of going to a school like ours.”
Another significant component of research according to Young is the application of skills and concepts learned in the classroom.
“In research, we keep coming back to things we’ve talked about in the classroom, and you actually have to use what you’ve learned,” she says. “We give students an authentic look at what real chemists actually do.”
She says that perfecting this lignin-degradation chemistry will be a long-term project, and that Aletty and Rowland have made a productive start.
“This is the first summer of this project, so I think we’ve done a really great job setting the stage,” says Young.
by Caitlan Cole