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Chemistry professor, Hungarian company join forces to give undergraduates marketable lab experience

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

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Media Contact: Traci Peterson

ARLINGTON - An assistant professor in The University of Texas at Arlington's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry has teamed with a Hungarian company to allow undergraduate students worldwide to gain valuable experience in hydrogenation, a chemical process widely used in the pharmaceutical, food, petrochemical and materials industries.

Christopher O'Brien

Christopher O'Brien

Christopher O'Brien did the work along with undergraduate students Stephen R. Kunkel and Chei Chen after receiving grant funding from Budapest-based ThalesNano Inc. Their aim was to design a course using the company's H-Cube and H-Cube Tutor flow hydrogenation systems.

Course materials initially are being made available in both Mandarin Chinese and English.

Hydrogenation is the least wasteful technique for adding hydrogen to molecules to make them more saturated. It is used in industry in processes ranging from making margarine to drug development. Universities have typically shied away from hydrogenation instruction because traditional methods using high pressure equipment and hydrogen cylinders have the potential for serious accidents.

The H-Cube systems greatly reduce the risk of hydrogenation experiments by using a method called flow chemistry to contain the reaction safely. Flow chemistry is a growing field in which reactions are created in a continuous flow over a fixed catalyst, rather than in batches.

The H-Cube equipment also makes its own hydrogen in small amounts through electrolysis of water, eliminating the need for hydrogen cylinders.

"What this does is to basically remove those safety concerns from the lab and makes it easier to perform these reactions," O'Brien said. "It was developed by undergraduates for undergraduates."

He went on to explain that exposing students to flow chemistry concepts is another benefit to the H-Cube system because of the method's ongoing growth in the synthetic chemical industry.

Hydrogenation reactors created by ThalesNano are in use in all of the top 20 pharmaceutical companies in the world, according to ThalesNano. The company is a world leader in providing continuous process chemistry instruments. ThalesNano officials believe O'Brien's course will help universities equip students for the professional world with practical hands-on experience on a machine that arguably is the future of hydrogenation.

O'Brien's work is representative of the kind of research under way at UT Arlington, a comprehensive institution of nearly 29,000 students with a rapidly growing research program. O'Brien joined UT Arlington in 2007. Before that, he was a senior postdoctoral fellow at York University in Canada.

O'Brien said he hopes that the course he developed with ThalesNano will be integrated into the curriculum at UT Arlington soon. The course includes multi-media training presentations that make for easy implementation at any institution, he said. The course also is currently being adapted for the recently released Apple iPad.

That tool, O'Brien said, "will greatly enhance the effectiveness of the teaching assistants as all the information is right there at the bench where it is needed."


The University of Texas at Arlington is an Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action employer.