by Jessica Jervis-Viville

Dr. Martin McPhail, assistant professor of chemistry, has been awarded a grant from the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund. The grant supports fundamental research directly related to petroleum or fossil fuels at nonprofit organizations. It provides chemists with the opportunity to initiate new research direction. McPhail intends to use this grant to enhance the understanding of a bigger picture.

Dr. Martin McPhail poses outdoors in a jacket without a tie, holding his award mug“The goal of my research is starting off fundamental,” explained McPhail. “I’m really into trying to develop model systems, then using this to try and tell the rules and fundamentals of other applications. At the heart of what I’m trying to do is look at how we tie electrical energy to chemistry at a very small scale. We want to figure out when light hits something, how does that turn into moving charge, current and solar energy. We will be able to understand this by first understanding the basics.”

McPhail hopes that by understanding the most basic level of this science, researchers will be able to use this information to conduct experiments on a larger scale.

“I am not trying to build a solar cell in my lab,” said McPhail. “I am not trying to build something that is going to make gasoline in my lab or make hydrogen fuel. What I want to do is figure out how I make something simple, so I can understand the important variables that are going on. Then I can figure out when we make something a lot more complicated—like a solar cell or a new type of engine for a car. Then we can figure out how to engineer this very complicated system, by understanding these fundamentals.”

McPhail took a moment to reflect on the prestigious honor of receiving the award. He viewed the grant as not just an opportunity for him but also a great opportunity for his students.

“It was very nice particularly being a young career awardee,” exclaimed McPhail. “One of things that is a very enjoyable experience about it is that I get to tell students that you can come in and work a whole lot in the lab, and you will get paid to do it. That’s one of the things I’m honestly happiest for. This grant is specifically designed to support undergraduate researchers. It’s all about getting students in the lab and getting them working in a productive way and getting them paid so they can devote the time in the lab that they need to.”

The grant is for two years, so the research has been divided into phrases. The preliminary part of the research has just now begun.

“We are starting on the first year of the experiment, which is based around conducting preliminarily measurements to essentially figure out how some basic chemistry works with the materials we are working with,” said McPhail. Then we will go forward and make more in-depth measurements. That requires us to figure out the basic chemistry.”

Ultimately, McPhail hopes that his research is impactful in the scientific community. He wants to create a greater understanding of fundamentals within the study.

“If there is something I hope that people take from work is that is how can we more rigorously study some fundamental processes,” McPhail explained.

Posted on October 17, 2017