Compound Modifiers

by Katharine Reece MFA '12

If you shine a flashlight into one of the many beakers lining the bookshelf in Colin Abernethy's office, chances are you'll see crystals.

"This is what chemists get really excited about," Abernethy says, peering into an indigo-colored beaker from behind his plastic goggles. "And it's what makes people think we're crazy," he adds with a smile.

Crazy enough to tackle global warming? Apparently so. Last year Abernethy received a grant from the American Chemical Society (ACS) to make metal nitrides—new compounds that could help recycle carbon dioxide into organic materials that actually help the environment.

Those test-tube crystals are the products of various chemical reactions created by Abernethy and a fleet of student workers in attempts to generate these metal nitride compounds. The students are not just from SLC; some are Yonkers high school students in the Summer Science Program.

After months spent growing on the sides of the flasks, the crystals will be shipped to a research group at the University of Wisconsin, where fellow chemists will perform x-ray defraction studies to determine their precise structure.

"Those studies will tell us if we've created a new compound," Abernethy says.

Metal nitrides could play a role in systems that sequester carbon dioxide in the chimneys of power stations. The process is similar to what happens in a car's catalytic converter, which stimulates a chemical reaction that removes the toxicity of the exhaust fumes.

But even if these crystals aren't the exact metal nitride that's needed, the SLC team's work could help another group achieve success, which is what science is all about, Abernethy says.

Either way, he hopes Sarah Lawrence students like James Parichy '14, Sarah Reyman '13, and Lauren Shepard '13 will present the findings at a science conference or publish them in a scientific journal.

Which proves that it isn't just glittery rocks that bring a smile to Abernethy's face. His investments in students of all ages are just as important as the chemical discoveries he makes.