Professor moves senior students out of chem labs and into CLS
By Matthew Dalzell
Stephen Urquhart recently posed this question to graduate students taking his Selected Topics in Physical Chemistry class: What makes non-stick aluminum foil, well, non-sticky?
Finding the answer meant conducting experiments, but instead of working at their lab benches in the Thorvaldson Building, the chemistry professor and his students convened at the Canadian Light Source where Urquhart has been developing lab activities for both graduates and undergraduates that use the synchrotron.
“It’s always a challenge to adapt a new research tool to teaching,” noted Urquhart. “It’s important to select experiments that are simple and demonstrate a key concept clearly. They have to be educationally sound while being technically feasible.”
Thus the non-stick foil question.
“The foil has some sort of coating on it that makes it non-stick,” he explained. “The beamline we’re using at the CLS is perfect for analyzing the chemical composition of the foil’s surface and figuring out what the non-stick ingredient is – silicone, Teflon or something else? We want to offer students something that will pique their interest.”
The students researched the ingredients of non-stick coatings, he said, and came up with a list of possible suspects that could be scanned for using the beamline. They then spent time learning the basics of beamline operation, and running samples of non-stick and plain aluminum foil. Once they had their data, it was back to the books to interpret the results.
For the students, it was a great opportunity to conduct research at the CLS as part of their class. “The course we’re taking teaches the use of a variety of tools that we could use in our research,” says first-year M.Sc. student Mintang Liu. “It’s good to get a chance to learn (how to use the beamline) before I use it in my work.”
So what does make non-stick aluminum foil non-stick? It turns out that the foil is indeed coated with a thin layer of a silicone-containing polymer. As for using the synchrotron in teaching, Urquhart definitely envisions other classes using the CLS in the future.“Maybe next time we’ll cut up a fry pan in the rough shop and have a look at that.”
Matthew Dalzell is the communications coordinator at the CLS