Article by Aoife Donohoe (Laidlaw Scholar 2021, Chemistry)
This summer I spent 6 weeks working in a research lab and realized that I was exactly where I wanted to be. Since secondary school I knew I wanted to do something “sciencey” but was unsure about the exact career path I wanted to go down. This project was such an incredible opportunity for me being able to carry out research into a topic that I am so interested in and that had the possibility to make a difference in the fight against climate change. My experience this summer doing independent research in an area that I feel passionately about has made it clear to me that chemical research is the career I want to pursue.
My research project aimed to develop materials capable of capturing carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. The increase of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere is a direct cause of climate change and is something that needs to be tackled in order to prevent further climate disasters. Fighting the climate crisis is something I am very passionate about, and I was so excited to be given the chance to research technologies that are really making a positive difference to our planet. In the months leading up to the project all I was feeling was excitement and anticipation to begin working on such a topical project. I was focusing solely on how much I was going to learn and all the fun I was going to have in the lab, and I think there was a small part of me that genuinely believed that I was going to solve climate change and save the world. However, as the project got closer, I realized that I had no real idea what I was doing. In theory I knew what I wanted to achieve, and I had a list of reactions I planned to carry out in the lab, but I had no clue how to actually do them. I, of course, had lab experience from my college course, but with Covid restrictions the lab time I had was extremely limited and everything was always planned and laid out for me. By the time my first day in the lab came around I was so nervous, but luckily I was not expected to know how to do everything. When I arrived, everyone working in the lab with me was so lovely and accommodating, they all were eager to help me learn and made me feel completely at ease and able to focus back on the reason I was there; to research.
My research involved developing materials from natural sugars and testing their ability to capture carbon dioxide from the air. The sugar I was using, Chitosan, is naturally occurring in shrimp shells and so is a waste product of seafood production making it very sustainable. The project idea was to make this sugar porous so that it would be able to trap carbon dioxide molecules from the air. I wanted to test different ways this porosity could be achieved. My initial plan was to make structures known as Metal Organic Frameworks, MOFs, with the sugar and abundant metals. MOFs are known for their porosity and are a very big part of the ongoing carbon capture research. Unfortunately, when the sugar was reacted with the different metals the products were not porous when tested. Although the reactions did produce some very cool, vibrantly coloured compounds.
It was very disheartening finding out that I did not manage to synthesise the MOF type structures that I wanted. I was extremely disappointed to have such negative results just 2 weeks into the project. Thankfully, I was very fortunate to be surrounded by a group of seasoned researchers who were well versed in the ups and downs of chemical research. I received great support and advice from my supervisors, and I was able to pick myself back up and switch up the direction of my research. I ended up using a cross linking technique to make the sugar porous. This technique involved making Chitosan beads and reacting these in different ways with a compound known as TEOS. This proved to be much more successful than the MOFs and 6 of the compounds synthesised were porous. The porous compounds were then tested to determine if they captured carbon dioxide, and most of them did! Although only to a very small extent but as Tesco says, “every little helps”.
Even though the results were not very promising, and my compounds are not about to go and save the planet, I was so thrilled. It was such an amazing feeling to have something that came from my own initiative and that I made with my own two hands making a positive impact on our world. Granted, this impact is very limited as I only managed to capture a few grams of carbon. This lack of big results made me even more determined to keep researching and developing new ways to make my materials better at capturing carbon, but alas the summer ended all too soon.
My summer spent researching has been one of the most rewarding periods of time in my life. I felt such a sense of accomplishment having completed my own independent research project. I am now more eager than ever to keep researching and can’t wait to continue to learn about the exciting world of research in summer 2.