Monday, March 4, 2013

UNO Chemistry Student Shines at Innovate UNO

Cinnamon Mitchell, a chemistry student at the University of New Orleans, hopes to spend several years upon graduation working in an oil refinery in Louisiana, conducting analytical testing of petroleum and other oil products. Then, she said, she will head to graduate school to pursue a doctorate in advanced chemistry.

Literature, languages and other academic studies leave room for nuance and interpretation, said Mitchell, a UNO senior and Marrero native who graduated from Patrick F. Taylor Science and Technology Academy in Jefferson. She gravitates toward math and sciences because she likes precision.

"I find that two plus two always equals four. That's why I like math and sciences," Mitchell smiled, when asked why she studies chemistry in the University's College of Sciences.

Precision is exactly what Mitchell was seeking last semester as she embarked on a project for Chemistry 3094, a four-credit individual research course that is taught by UNO Research Professor John B. Wiley and demands at least 12 laboratory research hours per week. Mitchell's study of perovskites and ion exchange has evolved into a year-long thesis project that has caught the attention of scholars both on and off campus.

Perovskites are valuable tools in advanced materials research, which aims to make technology and products better, smarter and faster. The natural minerals have the same type of crystal structure as calcium titanium oxide and a structure type which includes at least 150 synthetic compounds. Perovskites are also catalysts in water splitting, or splitting water into hydrogen atoms that can be used as a fuel source, Mitchell said.

On Friday, Mitchell's poster presentation "The Synthesis of New Layered Perovskites via Ion Exchange," took first place for the University's College of Sciences in Innovate UNO, the University's first juried undergraduate research, scholarship and creativity showcase.

The aim of the competition was to improve undergraduate student success through engagement in research, scholarship and creativity and to help students build skills for further academic and career success, said Matthew Tarr, professor of chemistry and chair of the UNO Undergraduate Research Council. The showcase is also designed to help students gain interest in advanced scholarly research and encourage them to build skills needed to attain grant funding.

As a first-place winner, Mitchell will head next month to Monroe, La. where she will represent UNO in an academic summit hosted by the University of Louisiana System and compete against winners from nine state universities. Mitchell's presentation will also compete in April in a national competition hosted by the American Chemical Society at its annual conference in New Orleans. This month, Mitchell also competes in a departmental contest at UNO, where University leaders are highly focused on advancing Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) studies.

"One of the reasons we are interested in perovskites is the properties: Superconductivity, water-splitting and magnetic properties, which is where ferro-electricity comes from," said Mitchell, who has her eye on emerging sciences including nanotechnology. "What I basically do is make the perovskites and I exchange one ion with another. That's it in a nutshell."

Wiley, her professor, is interested in high-temperature superconductors or advanced materials that can conduct electricity or transport electrons from one atom to another with no resistance and do not emit heat, sound or other energy when the material reaches critical temperature. Superconductors are very efficient and thus conducive to the development of fossil fuels and other alternative energy sources that could be critical for the future.

Under Wiley's supervision, Mitchell worked to develop new perovskites, reworking chemical reactions again and again and tweaking time elapsed and temperature as she tested. In her work, Mitchell used machines from the University's chemistry laboratory: an X-ray powder diffractometer (XRD), Raman and IR spectroscopy that provide information on the arrangements of atoms in her compounds.

The machines are typical of those found in laboratories doing solid-state chemistry, Mitchell said. Working with the machines was one way to characterize the perovskites she manufactured, she said. Her goal was to attain knowledge.

"If you're a chemist, you have to go through several different reactions in order to get the best compound," said Mitchell. "The perovskites that I made were five new perovskites that have not been shown in literature."

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