Summer Vacation: Students Exploring Life Of Researchers

SOCORRO, N.M. June 24, 2010 – Most college students use the summer as “vacation,” but many New Mexico Tech undergraduates take no break during their time off.

Geologists spend six weeks on field camp or gathering data in farflung places. Electrical engineers are building new instruments. Physicists are gathering data on distant galaxies or earth’s atmosphere.

Annie Boydelatour (left) and Samantha Saville measure support materials to create a catalyst in a New Mexico Tech chemical engineering lab.


Clay Beevers shows Annie Boydelatour and Samantha Saville how to calibrate and operate a gas chromatograph.


Clay Beevers prepares a small furnace, which he uses for combustion synthesis, a process used to create a catalyst.

Photos by Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech

In chemical engineering, a trio of students is running a battery of experiments they hope will improve the efficiency of biodiesel and ethanol production.

Annie Boydelatour and Samantha Saville are visiting New Mexico Tech for eight weeks as part of the federally-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates program. Their project is one of five intensive, interdisciplinary REU projects under way at New Mexico Tech. Boydelatour and Saville are working in the lab and learning about chemical engineering with recent Tech graduate Clay Beevers.

“For an undergraduate, this is the best experience you can get,” Beevers said. “If you’re thinking about a research career or graduate work, you need to do an REU internship.”

Beevers did an REU summer at the University of Colorado and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado in 2009. Now, he’s the lab instructor for a Tech project.

Boydelatour is a junior chemistry major at Otterbein College in Columbus, Ohio. Saville is a junior chemistry major at Adams State in Alamosa, Colo. They are both planning on graduate school, so this REU work is helping them focus their research interests.

“I’ve learned a lot of interesting stuff that will help me out in my next semester of classes,” Boydelatour said.

Saville said, “This is giving me a lot of new experiences that shows me what it’s like to be a scientist.”

Boydelatour and Saville said they’ve had limited experience with some of the lab instrumentation and none with much of the equipment.

“This is a good experience because it’s showing me that I can do it for the rest of my life,” Saville said. “And that’s promising.”

Beevers said summer research projects keep students in the research mode and allow them to learn new methodology, techniques and instrumentation.

“As chemistry majors, they’ve used the GC [gas chromatograph] before as part of a lab or part of class, but not as a research tool,” Beevers said. “Now, they’re getting to use the equipment in an actual research environment for a specific purpose. ”

Beevers earned his bachelor’s in May 2010 – after only four years – and will finish his master’s degree later this year. The REU students are also helping him finish his graduate research.

Under the direction of professor Dr. Corey Leclerc, Beevers and his team are looking for a new catalyst that will effectively reform ethanol to hydrogen gas while minimizing other products such as carbon monoxide.

The students are building new catalysts and testing their effectiveness in maximizing hydrogen production. First, they combine a ceramic support material with a metal, which serves as the catalyst.

They are experimenting with commercially available ceramic support materials, like cerium oxide and zirconium oxide, then adding the metal catalysts, which are platinum, cobalt, nickel and copper.

The process of combining the support and the catalyst can be handled in any number of methods. Beevers is using either incipient wetness impregnation, combustion synthesis or a combination of the two methods. In short, the ceramic support and a metal salt containg the metal of interest are mixed and then put into a furnace.

“You can use combustion synthesis as a method for synthesizing the entire catalyst in one process,” Beevers said. “It’s a new twist on the traditional combustion synthesis method that no one has tried. Our REU students will be some of the first ever to try this altered method. We don’t know if it’ll work, but we’ll find out.”

The team will try various combinations of support materials and metal catalysts to find a ratio that is most effective.

“We’re narrowing it down, hunting for a combination that works best,” Beevers said.

The final product – the catalyst – is packed into a fixed bed reactor. Then, they run ethanol through the reactor, where the fuel comes in contact with the catalysts. The output is then captured and analyzed in a gas chromatograph.

They will also use various techniques and instruments to characterize the catalyst, including x-ray diffraction, electron imaging, temperature programmed reduction, and temperature programmed desorption.

“The reactor tells us how well our catalyst is performing,” Beevers said. “Then we use characterization techniques to find out why.”

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By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech