Behind the Iron Curtain

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Here in Dr. Funk’s lab, we are investigating the synthesis and applications of a series of iron catalysts. Catalysts are molecules that enable reactions to happen more quickly, lowering the activation energy required to react by providing an alternate mechanism of binding. The catalysts that we study perform oxidation-reduction reactions, which are widely used in chemical synthesis. Our hope is that these catalysts will eventually come to supplement the current catalysts being used, which often contain heavy metals such as ruthenium, which is expensive, scarce, and environmentally hazardous. Iron, by comparison is quite inexpensive, is the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, and is not toxic in any of its oxidation states. The lab has shrunk a bit since last year; we only have two members working this summer, but we’re working twice as hard to make up for it!


Our catalysts and some of the reactions they can do!


Meet the Lab

Funk lab 2016

Dr. Funk with his research students Andrew Mahoney (left) and Tracy Tang (right)


Andrew Mahoney is a rising senior with a declared Biochemistry and Molecular Biology major, with a minor in Music. This is his second year in Dr. Funk’s lab, and he is continuing the research he did last summer. This involves the synthesis of new iron catalysts with slight modifications to their structure, and testing their reactivities in a series of different reactions. In the mornings, he will often set up a reaction (or four) by combining catalyst, substrate, and activator in a flask under an atmosphere of nitrogen. For the remainder of the day, he will take samples out periodically, filter them, and determine how far the reaction has progressed at that point in time using data collected from a gas chromatographer. This allows him to make comparisons of the different catalysts and eventually determine what structural modifications will produce the most efficient catalysts. When not in lab, Andrew enjoys playing Frisbee and volleyball, $5 movie nights at the Gateway, and practicing his trumpet.


What an average day’s setup looks like for Andrew!


Tracy Tang is a chemistry major from the class of 2019. She is very happy to be in Dr.Funk’s lab this summer doing cool stuff!

Every day we do synthetic organic chemistry, which is great fun! Our group focuses on the synthesis and reactivity of a particular type of iron catalyst in oxidation and reduction reactions. Our iron catalyst is cheap, safe, and easy to synthesize. Tracy’s work mainly focuses on one of the most commonly used versions of iron catalyst and compares its reactivity in various diol cyclizations. When a diol (a molecule with two alcohol groups) undergoes oxidation twice, it becomes a ring-shaped molecule called a lactone. Such reactions are very commonly used and we hope that our research can provide these reactions with a more efficient approach.

Days always begin with equipping ourselves with lab coat, goggles and gloves. Lab is the battlefield and various glassware is our weapons. We put bullets, or our reactants into the weapons and BOOM! Well…that’s not the case. Chemical reactions are not that simple. Tracy sets up a reaction and lets it go for 24 hours. She then evaporates the solvent (plays with tons of dry ice), runs a column (the most difficult and nerve-wracking part) and then spends hours in the NMR room collecting spectra (and playing card games on the computer while waiting). Every day ends more quickly than she thought it would, and she can never get enough of chemistry (Not enough chemistry? Go and wash the glassware!).

Love chemistry. Love organic. Love this lab.


Blast shields help protect against volatile reactions! Also, fume hoods are great places to write notes for yourself!



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