Microwave System to Enhance North Park University's Chemistry Program

microwave synthesis system
University chemistry students will be using the Discover SP system, funded by a grant and the University (CEM Corporation image).

Grant award enables equipment purchase, benefits 80 students

CHICAGO (March 14, 2012) – North Park University is adding a microwave synthesis system to its chemistry curriculum thanks to a $10,000 award from the 2012 Pittsburgh Conference Memorial National College Grants (PCMNCG) Program and other University funds. The new microwave system, to be used primarily in organic chemistry courses, will allow students to heat chemical compounds more efficiently, and significantly shorten the time required for laboratory experiments.

"Experiments done in hours are now going to be done in minutes, and it will widen the types of experiments the students can do in the lab," said Dr. Isabel Larraza, North Park University associate professor of chemistry. "The microwave reactor is now being considered a staple of modern organic labs. Our students will have a more in-depth learning experience, with efficient and current experiments that adhere to the principles of 'green chemistry.'"

Larraza's successful grant application was one of 13 chosen from 59 submitted to PCMNCG. She said about 80 chemistry students per year will use the Discover SP System, manufactured by CEM Corporation, Matthews, N.C. The reactor just arrived and will be installed this week. The instrument has wider uses in other chemistry courses and in other disciplines, such as biology, Larraza said.

With the new microwave system, chemistry students will no longer heat flasks in the lab using older, less efficient methods such as heating mantles or Bunsen burners. Instead they will insert tubes with chemicals into the microwave system. The heat generated by the instrument will produce chemical reactions much quicker than before, with the added benefit of minimizing the production of byproducts and chemical waste. Students will also learn about modern microwave syntheses, and "use an emerging technology that is being adopted by industry and by the academy," Larraza said.

The University Chemistry Department has put considerable effort into modernizing its general chemistry laboratories by adding digital instrumentation and other resources, said Dr. Jonathan Rienstra-Kiracofe, professor of chemistry and department chair. "With Dr. Larraza's arrival at North Park this year, we have begun a similar effort to modernize our organic chemistry laboratory by adding new instrumentation and making our experiments 'greener.' The new microwave reactor is going to be the highlight of the laboratory – allowing our students to experience modern, green organic chemistry."

Dr. Isabel Larraza, in the University's organic chemistry lab, says the new microwave synthesis system is part of the Chemistry Department's 'green chemistry' practices.

Larraza does research in and is an advocate for green chemistry practices. The new microwave synthesis system is part of that effort. Green practices include such things as waste prevention, use of methods to minimize toxicity, using safer solvents, energy efficiency, and preventing accidents. This month, Larraza will present her research on microwave synthesis at the American Chemical Society National Meeting and Exposition in San Diego, and in July, she will attend a green chemistry workshop at the University of Oregon, Eugene.

University chemistry students are aware the microwave system will soon be available in their labs. "They're very eager. They will be doing hands-on types of experiments," Larraza said.

Earlier this year, the North Park University Chemistry Department won a grant award from the Max Goldenberg Foundation, Chicago. Funds from that grant, combined with other University funds, were used to purchase a miniature Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectrometer, manufactured by picoSpin, LLC, Boulder, Colo. The University will be one of the first in the nation to have a miniature spectrometer for teaching and research purposes.

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Next Steps

Read more of the campus news featured in the Summer 2012 North Parker.