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Microwave chemistry research heats up at WVU

Similar to how microwave ovens heat soup but not the bowl, researchers at West Virginia University are exploring the possibility of heating one solution component selectively over others in chemical reactions.   

Gregory Dudley
Gregory Dudley

The research is led at WVU by Gregory Dudley, the Eberly Family Distinguished Professor and chair of the C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry , in close collaboration with Albert Stiegman, a professor of chemistry at Florida State University. 

Their study, funded by the National Science Foundation, will help develop an improved fundamental understanding of how selective microwave heating can impact dynamic chemical processes. They seek to harness microwave energy strategically to expand the capabilities of organic chemistry, including to process optimization and green chemistry.

“Our first steps are to identify reaction systems that behave differently when you heat them in the microwave reactor than when you heat them conventionally, and then study those systems,” Dudley said. “Over the last four to five years, we’ve found a few extreme systems that do that. We are studying those systems in greater depth and working to identify new ones that are more synthetically useful.  

A new microwave reactor, provided by the Japanese company Tokyo Rikakikai Company Ltd., will further aid the study. It will be installed at WVU April 11-12.

“This company is using new technology to generate microwave radiation, which is what we are harnessing in our research,” Dudley said. “They want us to incorporate their technology into our research and assess the results.”  

As kitchen microwaves became more common in the 1970s and 1980s, organic chemists began testing their experiments in them to determine how the chemicals would react.

“We don’t use kitchen microwave ovens in research today because they are not designed to handle typical organic reactions,” Dudley said. “The early experiments often failed but occasionally gave dramatic and unexpected results, which the research community has been trying for decades to rationalize and understand. We have made some in-roads into understanding the origins of so-called ‘microwave effects’ in organic chemistry.”

The additional microwave reactor also gives the Department of Chemistry an opportunity to incorporate the microwave instrumentation and microwave-based experiments into the undergraduate chemistry curriculum.

“Many universities have incorporated microwave heating experiments into the undergraduate chemistry curriculum,” Dudley said. “We may join those ranks or even develop new lab experiments for our students that connect more directly to our research.”