‘Going green’ is a subject upon which Dr. Karen Torraca – a 1993 Houghton College graduate, professor of chemistry, and chair of the chemistry department at Houghton – speaks passionately.
Torraca and seniors Eliza Burdick-Risser of Genesee, PA, and Frances Quigley of Salamanca, NY were part of Houghton’s innovative Summer Research Institute. They joined eight other major research teams, combining faculty expertise with hands-on experiential learning and taking students’ knowledge beyond the classroom.
The trio investigated environmentally friendly ways of achieving oxidation, a chemical process used in several fields – such as the pharmaceutical industry – as an intermediate step to creating final products. A catalyst is used to prompt a reaction of an alcohol substrate. The method converts the molecular bond from single to double, making it more reactive and usable. Current methods of oxidation often require heavy metals, which create excessive waste and are environmentally harmful. The challenge for the Houghton team has been finding a minimally toxic way to achieve a simple reaction that works just as well in a scientific flask as in a 2,000-gallon tank.
Although Torraca has been investigating possibilities with students for several summers, this year’s team used a new solvent called sulfolane, which is considered a ‘green’ solvent. Torraca, Burdick-Risser, and Quigley used minimal amounts of palladium as a catalyst, seeking an ideal reaction. They found great reproducibility of the reaction, a problem faced in past research with other solvents.
While further research needs to be conducted, sulfolane has the potential for significant industrial implications. Less preparation would be needed to ‘ready’ a molecule and, in the case of pharmaceuticals, the less-toxic solvent would require fewer clinical tests – reducing time, monetary costs, environmental impact, and any adverse effects on the health of current and future patients.
“It is very rewarding to see students get so excited about research that they want to tell their friends and family about it,” remarks Torraca. “Finishing research this summer was a mixed blessing since the students had so many more reactions that they wanted to run!”
The Summer Research Institute has offered unique research opportunities for more than 100 students since its 2007 inception. In 2016 SRI was named one of the Top 50 Best College Summer Programs in the Country by Best College Reviews, joining Ivy League schools such as Columbia and Yale.