Pushing the Boundaries of What is Known: Discovering New Compounds
Not many professors stumble upon entirely new compounds in the course of their research but for Dr. Benny Chan, these “serendipitous discoveries,” as he likes to call them, are just part of being a materials chemist.
“In my kind of research, we find these new compounds by accident,” the assistant professor of chemistry explained. “It’s these synthetic aspects that really drive my interest in chemistry.” Simply put, he adds, “making new things is fun!”
Dr. Chan joined the faculty at TCNJ in 2006 after a one-year visiting professorship at Dickinson College. He attended Franklin and Marshall for his B.A. in Chemistry and, after a brief stint as a quality control chemist with Merck, went on to receive his Ph.D. at Pennsylvania State University. Following his doctoral degree, he completed a post-doctoral position at Colorado State University and Los Alamos National Laboratories.
“I’ve always had an interest in teaching because of my great experience at F&M but working at Dickinson sealed my decision to stay at an undergraduate, liberal arts institution,” he said.
As a materials chemist, Dr. Chan focuses on the applied side of chemistry by making new materials with specific applications. In a nutshell, he chooses the application first and then looks for new compounds that may have the properties for those applications. Of particular interest are superconductors, which have the ability to conduct electricity with zero resistance, and thermoelectric materials, which can be used either in collecting waste heat to generate electricity or in cooling applications. These interests overlap because he uses similar synthetic strategies for both projects.
When it comes to magnetic materials, Dr. Chan attempts to synthesize analogs of known superconductors – materials that have zero resistance once they drop below a certain critical temperature, in the hopes of discovering new superconductors closer to room temperature.
“We look for examples of known superconductors in the literature and try to make compounds with similar structures in the hopes they also have similar properties,” explained Dr. Chan. “In doing this, we end up finding new structures that haven’t been reported.”
These serendipitous discoveries include K12Nb6Sb35.3 and Cs6Nb4Se11, both brand new compounds discovered and published in last year’s Acta Crystallographica. In the search for a superconductor that conducts at room temperature, Dr. Chan also discovered a new 5 K superconductor, KxNbSe2. “It’s more about understanding how superconductivity works,” he explained, rather than discovering those with room temperature capabilities. “This was huge to find a new superconductor but we can’t publish [the work] until we know what [the structure] is.”
Real-world applications for superconductors include high efficiency transfer of electricity along with nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) medical instrumentation.
Sometimes his work leads to a reported structure that was not well solved in the literature. “Finding that we have a better structure solution than what was in the literature is a great feeling,” said Dr. Chan. “Sometimes we’re pushing the edges of what is currently known, which is very important because nobody was able to solve this structure before.”
Throughout his research, Dr. Chan has made ample use of the single-crystal X-ray diffractometer awarded by a National Science Foundation grant last year. To date, the Chemistry Department has partnered with Princeton University, University of North Carolina-Ashville, and Messiah College, along with several faculty members including Dr. David Hunt, Dr. Heba Abourahma, and Dr. Abby O’Connor in utilizing the instrument, which is a key component of research in synthetic organic and inorganic chemistry.
As one of the select few undergraduate institutions housing an X-ray diffractometer, Dr. Chan says he is investigating the development of an advanced inorganic course here at TCNJ that would feature the instrument in the lab. Students would grow single crystals – chemicals that can be bought off the shelf but whose crystal structure has not been reported – solve the structures and publish their findings, all in the confines of the course. “It’s bringing research into the classroom as opposed to having a separate research experience.”
In terms of his own research, Dr. Chan says working with students is the best part. “It’s how we progress our field, by training the next group of scientists,” he said. “Research is important because in the classroom there are always answers. In research, nobody knows those answers yet so it’s our job to find the answers.”
– Jessica Corry