O’Brien awarded grant to research metal molecules

Usually, a married couple’s “big project” consists of something such as repainting the outside of the house or renovating the basement.

For Leah O’Brien, professor of chemistry at SIUE and her husband, James, also a professor of chemistry at University of Missouri – St. Louis, the “big project” will consist of observing certain bonding properties of metal molecules in the closest way possible to date with a new machine.

That machine, aptly named a high resolution Fourier transform spectrometer (FTS), is essential to the duo’s continuing research on the properties of metal elements, especially when considering more detailed information. The only catch was the machine’s price tag — $200,000.

Leah O'Brien, professor of chemistry at SIUE. photo courtesy of O'Brien.

The O’Brien’s applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation and received $320,000 to be used over the course of two years.

They will use that money to buy the FTS machine that can be used as a standalone instrument when needed, link it up with an older and slightly different machine, and ultimately perform rigorous research based off charts the machines create that map out the activity of the specific metals they are studying.

“The machines use spectroscopy, which allows us to examine properties of these molecules through the way in which they absorb light,” Leah said. “The FTS will allow us to see even closer than before the details that the other machine does not have the capabilities of doing.”

She said the largest component of the research will include the merging of the two machines.

“A lot of our work is going to be making the two components of the instruments talk to each other so they can sync the data,” she said. “That’ll all be programmed so that it works right and the information we get is the correct information we’re looking for.”

Leah said not much information is known about those certain metal properties and she’s hoping they will be able to obtain new research in order to better understand the way these molecules operate. She said the research does not have a specific goal, such as finding out a new way to bond metals with each other to create stronger ones and so on, but simply serves as an avenue to know more about the tiny parts that make up the world we live in.

That isn’t to say, though, that whatever new information they find can be potentially built upon in the future for ground-breaking discoveries, she said.

Leah also said the new machine will in some way teach SIUE’s chemistry students more about the profession’s ever-evolving technology either through firsthand experience or when Leah or James brings their new found knowledge to the classroom.


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