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‘Mega death dish’ fuels green chemistry at TTU

The World Health Organization list of essential medicines has more than 500 chemical compounds on it that are necessary for basic health care.

Tennessee Tech University associate chemistry professor Dan Swartling and his team of 14 student researchers are going through that list to see how many of the compounds they can create using environmentally friendly methods and materials.

“We want to involve alternate energy as much as possible. I think it’s around one billion people who live without electricity,” Swartling said. “If we can find ways to change the production process, think of all the places that we could produce drugs that don’t have electric grids. That gets those drugs closer to people who need them.”

The most prominent feature of the team’s green chemistry efforts is a 10-foot satellite dish covered with $150 worth of gold metalized Mylar tape. Called the “mega death dish,” it features a stencil of Star Wars’ Darth Vader. Reminiscent of the film’s Death Star, which has a dimple that fires a concentrated laser beam capable of destroying planets, TTU’s dish concentrates the sun’s energy to fuel chemical reactions.

This is the third dish that Swartling’s students have built. Each dish is larger than the last to demonstrate that their successes are scalable. Several students have had papers published about the reactions in the Journal of Chemical Education and Sustainable Chemical Processes.

The mega death dish hasn’t been put into action yet; TTU’s mechanical engineering department will design a stand to hold it and a 55-gallon drum to house the reactions. It will be used to make biodiesel, which will be tested by TTU mechanical and industrial technology professor Ahmed Elsawy.

Several of Swartling’s student researchers are using the smaller dishes for other projects.

Junior chemistry major Rachel Chan, of Portland, Oregon, is making essential oils using cinnamon, clove, lavender and star anise. Pure essential oils have a variety of health benefits and some people use them to maintain and improve health.

Shikha Amin, a junior from Cookeville, is working on using solar energy to dehydrate alcohols to make alkenes, which are the building blocks for other chemical reactions.

Veronica Sublett, a master’s student from Knoxville, is using a dish to try to make a green version of Dilantin, a drug used to treat epilepsy.

Jeremy Chosie, a master’s student from Powell, is working on the solar synthesis of Naproxen, which is used to treat pain and inflammation.

Swartling and recent doctoral graduate Brian Agee, of Smithville, recently submitted a paper for publication on a five-step synthesis of ibuprofen that uses solar energy and solvents that are a waste product of making biofuel.

Each project involves studying the reactions and substances created in the lab using electricity and comparing the quality and quantity of what is produced outside. So far, the research team has found no significant difference in the compounds, other than the impact on the environment.

“The sun is a sustainable source of energy and anything we can use the sun to do instead of fossil fuels is a good thing,” Swartling said. “The sun is the ultimate source of all our power and all of our energy.”

Photo ID:

TTU chemistry professor Dan Swartling’s research team stands with the mega death dish, which they will use to harness the sun’s rays to fuel chemical reactions to make medicine, essential oils and biofuel. Left to right: Rachel Chan, Jordan Jones, Shikha Amin, Shana Murphy, Brian Agee, chemistry lab coordinator Gene Mullins, Veronica Sublett. Not pictured: Jeremy Chosie.