February 21, 2014, BY Matt Hughes

 Professors Peter Stryker and Indranil Brahma
Professors Peter Stryker (l) and Indranil Brahma (r)

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The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded two groups of Bucknell researchers more than a quarter-million dollars to purchase advanced instruments to further their research goals.

NSF's Major Research Instrumentation Program supports the acquisition and development of modern research tools for scientists, engineers and student researchers. Bucknell submitted two applications for instrument funding, the maximum number allowed per institution per year, and was awarded both.

"One of the things we were very careful to talk about was the number of students involved in all of the research projects," said Professor David Rovnyak, chemistry. "I think that made an impression on both the reviewers and the NSF program officers."

Of the 175 institutions receiving grants from the program, only 26, or less than 15 percent, received two.

Rovnyak — together with fellow chemistry professors Timothy Strein, Charles Clapp and Thomas Selby, and Professor Marie Pizzorno, biology — submitted an application to purchase an isothermal titration calorimeter (ITC), a table-top device that can measure changes in energy as minute as a nanocalorie — less energy than a fly uses to flap its wings once, or one-trillionth of the energy in a Snickers bar. Rovnyak said the instrument will have broad application for student and faculty researchers in the biology and chemistry departments.

"We have come up with five faculty who have an authentic need for a given piece of advanced instrumentation," Rovnyak said. "It's very special."

Rovnyak, Strein and a group of student researchers will employ the device to study bile salt micelles, molecules produced by the liver that transport cholesterol and fats, and how they bond to each other and to other molecules. Pizzorno will use it to study the structure of two viruses, including one that may play a role in declining bee populations in the United States.

"A lot of people are studying its interaction with the bees," Pizzorno said. "But nobody has started to dissect it at this very molecular level."

Selby plans to use the ITC in ongoing research about the binding of enzymes at membranes in the body.

"We have a backlog of probably a year's worth of experiments [waiting for ITC]," he said. "It's exciting."

The fast particulate spectrometer proposed by mechanical engineering professors Indranil Brahma and Peter Stryker will also shed new light on ongoing experiments. The two researchers study emissions produced by combustion engines, and the new device will allow them to take real-time measurements of exhaust particles too small to be detected by other instruments.

Historically, particle emissions have been measured by two standards: opacity and mass, Brahma explained. The researcher either shines a laser through a stream of exhaust and measures how much light is extinguished, or uses a filter to capture particle emissions then weighs the filter. The problem with those techniques, Brahma said, is that they don't account for the smallest particles, which aren't visible to the naked eye and can pass through standard carbon filters. But those smallest particles could have a particularly detrimental impact on public health, Brahma said. In addition to respiratory problems like asthma, recent research indicates the smallest particles may be able to enter the bloodstream through the lungs, potentially leading to cancer or hardening of the arteries.

"The National Institutes of Health have a lot of studies running to figure out the harmful effects of these smallest particles," Brahma said.

The fast particulate spectrometer can identify particles smaller than 10 nanometers in size — much smaller than the particles that are traditionally considered smoke, Brahma said — and provide a distribution of particles by size. It also operates more quickly than other tools, allowing the researchers to measure emissions in real time as an engine heats up, revs more quickly or slowly, or enters turbocharger lag. Brahma and Stryker will employ the device in several ongoing studies examining the impact of various factors — including fuel type, fuel-air ratio, turbochargers and exhaust temperature — on emissions produced by small engines powered by gasoline and biodiesel. Their findings could lay the groundwork for significant changes to environmental regulatory policy.

The European Union has already capped the number of particles emitted per kilometer for all new passenger cars sold after January 2013. Current EPA regulations are based on the mass, not number, of particles, meaning only diesel engines require particle filters, but Brahma foresees the U.S. eventually imposing similar rules on automakers.

"In the U.S., it's coming," Brahma said. "People in the engine community are aware that you might need a filter even for gasoline engines, not just diesels, because gasoline engines also emit a huge number of the smallest particles that have been shown to be harmful."

Bucknell has found a niche testing emissions from smaller engines used to power generators, lawn mowers and other small machines. Stryker is examining how they perform using gasoline, biodiesels and mixtures of both fuels.

"If you're a commercial lawn-mower, you ride along all day long; you're exposed to this all the time, and nobody's really looked at it," Stryker said. "They don't wear masks or anything to capture particles, at least not at this point."

Both groups of researchers said they see their new instruments as an opportunity to build connections with other institutions and the surrounding community. Brahma and Stryker said they are in discussions to share the device with Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport and with the Clean Air Initiative office in Harrisburg, which tracks emissions from natural gas drilling. Rovnyak and his co-investigators plan to share data gathered with ITC to publically accessible databases.

"Right now what I see in science is a lot of open data sharing," Selby said. "The National Institutes of Health just launched a project they're calling Big Data to Knowledge. Whether or not ITC goes to that level or not is yet to be seen, but I think the more that we collect on the fundamental level the better."