Tech professors fueling new research with grants from American Chemical Society

Pictured, from left are Gourab Bhattacharya, assistant professor of earth sciences, and Kyle Murphy and Ranil Gurusinghe, assistant professors of chemistry.
Pictured, from left are Gourab Bhattacharya, assistant professor of earth sciences, and Kyle Murphy and Ranil Gurusinghe, assistant professors of chemistry.

Three professors at Tennessee Tech University have been awarded prestigious grants from the American Chemical Society (ACS) Petroleum Research Fund to further their research projects and give their students more opportunities for hands-on experience in the field.

Kyle Murphy, Ph.D., and Ranil Gurusinghe, Ph.D., assistant professors of chemistry, along with Gourab Bhattacharya, Ph.D., assistant professor of earth sciences, will use their awards of $55,000 each to involve undergraduate students in researching and experimenting with topics related to petroleum.

Murphy's research focuses on developing techniques using molecular rings to trap a harmful class of compounds found in petroleum sources called "asphaltenes." These compounds can cause cancer and show up as solids in unrefined petroleum. He and his team are working on building tiny molecule rings that will copy natural porphyrin molecules already known to interact with these asphaltenes. Using these custom porphyrins, his team hopes to grab the dangerous chemicals and remove them from contaminated areas.

Gurusinghe’s work focuses on what happens when various hydrocarbons burn and produce extremely reactive molecules that exist for only microseconds. Using a specialized technique called Fourier Transform Microwave (FTMW) spectroscopy that detects molecular rotations, their group can analyze these elusive molecules to better understand the chemistry of combustion and pyrolysis.

“Some scientific instruments you can buy commercially, but FTMW spectrometers that we need for these specific experiments are not commercially available, so we are building one in our lab,” Gurusinghe said. "As far as I know, we are the only research group who does pure rotational FTMW spectroscopy in the state of Tennessee, and when this instrument is completed, this will be the first FTMW spectrometer in Tennessee.”

Bhattacharya is working to discover the exact temperature conditions that led to the petroleum and natural gas reserves in the Cumberland Plateau, which is part of the Appalachian Basin that is known to contain large quantities of these resources that were formed more than 300 million years ago.

“The goal is to give the students the opportunity to know their backyard much better and in a very broad geologic context,” Bhattacharya said.

The grants will support anywhere from four to six undergraduate students per professor and will help cover things such as supplies for their research, travel funds, costs associated with fieldwork and paying students for their work.

“If we can pay our students, they can keep doing their research and not have to stress about finding a part-time job to meet their needs instead, because students can just overload themselves with responsibilities every semester,” Murphy said. “Whatever I can do to mitigate that and also make sure that they're in the lab is a win-win for both me and the student.”

The undergraduate research grants from the ACS’s Petroleum Research Fund are designed to support research programs of established scientists and engineers in non-doctoral departments and provide financial support to their students to be involved in advanced research activities in preparation for continued study in graduate school or employment. Only about 25 grants are typically awarded each year worldwide.

“I think it’s really impressive that the three of us all received one of these grants,” Murphy said. "I think the last person who got this grant for this university was Dr. (Jeannette) Luna, (chair and associate professor of earth sciences at Tech) back in 2016, and now three of us received one in the same year.”

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