When Allen Chong flies to Chicago at the end of August, the Rochester Institute of Technology senior will be en route to the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) national meeting, Aug. 26–30, as an undergraduate researcher. Along with his peers from around the country, Chong will present his findings to the Society’s undergraduate-affiliated section, an opportunity reserved for today’s up-and-coming young chemists.
Under the tutelage of James Worman, professor of chemistry at RIT, Chong has synthesized two unique molecular compounds that may someday hold a key to the computer industry’s bid to shrink applications to ever-smaller scales.
"In order for the computer industry to continue growing, it has to go smaller and smaller," Worman says. "You can’t get silicon much smaller in its present state."
That’s where Worman’s and Chong’s research comes in to play. Looking beyond silicon, their research investigates the possibility of using energy stored in molecules as electronic switches. Energy passed between molecules could conceivably form a wire or an electronic-molecular switch to rival silicon, explains Worman. Tiny molecular switches would break down the size barrier and give the computer industry an entirely smaller dimension in which to explore new applications.
"It’s futuristic, but right now we can establish the fundamental properties and lay the foundations of the research," says Worman, who will attend the ACS meeting in Chicago with his student.
The professional caliber of Chong’s research has attracted the notice of the local section of the ACS, which gave him a travel award to attend the national meeting.
Chong also presented his research earlier this month during the College of Science’s annual undergraduate research symposium.
At the heart of his research, Chong explains, is the idea that a lone pair of electrons interacts across systems. Creating the molecules responsible for the interaction gave Chong a new perspective in the laboratory. "It’s basically introducing an idea to the world," he says. "It’s pretty neat. You think about the larger scale of things."
When Chong applied for a position as an undergraduate researcher last year, he already knew that he wanted to work with Worman, whom he liked as a professor and as a person. As an undergraduate researcher Chong has had the chance to apply his chemistry knowledge by creating new molecular compounds, and studying what they look like and how they behave using the sophisticated instrumental techniques of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and gas chromatography mass spectrometry.
Chong found that isolating molecular compounds from a chemical requires patience. "It took me one day to make the chemical, then nine months to isolate the first compound," he says, adding that the second compound took six months to isolate. "You have to get it perfectly pure," he adds. "It’s all in the technique—instead of taking the product out of the solution, you take the garbage out first. By the time you’re done, you wind up with only a tiny amount when you started with 300 milliliters." Chong put the chemical he mixed in the NMR’s 300-megahertz magnetic field, which is strong enough to damage pacemakers and credit cards. Chong found that heating the chemical made an organic chain of the molecule start to wiggle, or move from a 120-degree angle to 180 degree angle—an unexpected display of energy from the molecule’s electrons. Knowing the temperature, Chong and Worman can calculate the energy it took to move the molecular chain, which is key to exploring the interactions of electrons in molecules.
An abstract of Chong’s work will be published in 2002 in the ACS’ Journal of Undergraduate Research, and will be his first professional publication. He expects to finish his bachelor’s degree at the end of the fall quarter, and to start his master’s in chemistry at RIT in the winter quarter.