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Whitney Bogus

At large-scale lab, student conducts research at the nanoscale

Whitney Bogus

Biochemistry and pre-med major Whitney Bogus spent her summer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory running experiments to show that nanoparticle production can be more efficient than current synthesis methods.

Tennis player and swimmer Whitney Bogus would have loved participating in the Summer 2012 Olympics, even as an observer. But she found what she did instead to be pretty cool, too. While Olympic swimmer Missy Franklin raked in four gold medals in the London games, Bogus researched improved ways to produce particles millions of times smaller than a drop of water.

For 10 weeks Bogus served as an intern at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the Volkswagen Distinguished Scholars Program managed by ORAU. The annual program gives students from six select Tennessee universities the opportunity to participate in cutting edge automotive-related research and includes a one-day trip to the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Bogus, an undergraduate in biochemistry and pre-med at Tennessee Technology University in Cookeville, Tenn., spent her time in purple gloves and a white lab coat running electrochemical experiments at ORNL’s Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, or CNMS.

Bogus’ project focused on the synthesis of nanoparticles, ultrafine particles measuring less than 100 atoms across. At this minute scale, certain natural properties of a material are more pronounced, which can lead to entirely new behavior. “A good example is gold,” said Dr. Adam Rondinone, Bogus’ mentor. “In bulk scale, it’s a very inert material—so inert that we make jewelry from it and plate it onto things that we don’t want to corrode. At the nanoscale, it’s a potent catalyst. Nanoparticle gold is very reactive.”

By learning to understand and control how materials change and behave at this level, researchers at the CNMS are contributing knowledge to fuel the next generation of new technologies in energy, computing and medicine fields.

Nanoparticles have applications in finger-printing, drug delivery and sensors for converting sunlight to electricity, among others. The U.S. Department of Energy is especially interested in nanoparticles for energy storage and generation systems.

“Our goal is to show we can use our method to synthesize nanoparticles in a more efficient, cost-effective and environmentally friendly manner,” Bogus said.

Common methods of nanoparticle production involve exotic solvents and are energy-intensive, requiring temperatures of up to 300 degrees Celsius. In comparison, Bogus’ production process was conducted in water and at room temperature.

To produce the nanoparticles, Bogus employed a machine known as a potentiostat to initiate an electrochemical reaction through a series of electrodes. She used an x-ray diffractometer to confirm the presence of nanoparticles and then used a scanning electron microscope to see the number and shape of the nanoparticles and take pictures. “The SEM magnifies an amazing amount. Usually I’m looking at 200,000 times magnification,” she said.

Bogus enjoyed the independence aspect of running all of the experiments on her own. “I’ve learned to have a lot of responsibility in my research and take pride in it,” she said. She said the program also helped her with time management and allowed her to learn current technology and government laboratory research methods.

Rondinone said the program is great for getting students to think about things on their own. “When they’re in a college lab, they conduct a reaction that’s been done a thousand times before. The outcome is well known and every variation of that outcome is also well known.”

“Here they get to come into a real research lab and do real research, which means sometimes the research fails, and sometimes you get unexpected down time. You have to learn new things all the time with minimal guidance.”

Bogus also says she developed stronger interpersonal skills with peers. “I’ve gained a lot of friends here,” she said. “There are so many different nationalities and universities represented at ORNL.  Getting to collaborate with these people who are prominent in their field of study is just a great opportunity.”

“It’s just amazing to think that something you do on a day-to-day basis, so small-scale, could one day actually be implemented and helpful,” Bogus said. “It feels like what I’m doing matters and hopefully has applications in the future to better the lives of everyday American citizens or even the world.”

Learn more about the Volkswagen Distinguished Scholars Program and other educational programs available at ORNL.