Seniors in SSR to design, conduct individual scientific experiments

In a few weeks, they’ll enter the lab wearing protective safety goggles, gloves and rubber lab coats, taking every possible precaution. Drip by drip, they’ll mix a compound with acid, but if they move too fast, the dangerous mixture will explode.

Mac Colquhoun ’14 and Andrew Friedman ’14 will brave the hazards of the reaction with the goal of synthesizing graphene in their Studies in Scientific Research class. Graphene, a single-atom-thick form of graphite, has many potential applications ranging from circuitry to desalination of ocean water.

“We wanted to do this because there’s a lot of unknowns,” Friedman said. “We’ll feel like we’re on the edge of science.”

SSR, supervised by physics teacher Antonio Nassar, provides seniors with lab space and a $500 budget to pursue a research project of their own design. Every year, students create experiments in diverse scientific fields and write papers detailing their findings.

Although there are many laboratories currently focused on graphene, no one has yet discovered a way to cheaply synthesize mass quantities of it. Colquhoun and Friedman will follow the approach of UCLA professor Richard Kaner, who presented his work with graphene to Harvard-Westlake students, Sept. 9. The pair spoke with Kaner after his speech and plan to communicate with him throughout the year.

“We’re just lucky that he came to speak,” Friedman said. “He’s the one who got us interested in [graphene].”

Within a few weeks, they hope to synthesize graphene via a hazardously exothermic reaction and a DVD burner.

Each trial using Kaner’s method will only cost around $5, Friedman said.

“Our goals are more like steps than an actual project goal,” Friedman said. “The absolute end goal would be to build a graphene micro-supercapacitor. As of now, our goal is to make a sizeable amount of graphene.”

While in AP Chemistry last year, Anser Abbas ’14 read a scientific abstract describing fractal patterns on the surface of self-organizing chemical reactions, but lacked the time or environment to further pursue the subject.

He signed up for SSR specifically to study these reactions.

“One thing that I’m going to focus on this year is trying to come up with a mathematical description of what’s happening at the surface,” he said. “At least at eye level, they appear to have this fractal geometry, but as of now no one’s really done in-depth research on using microscopy to see if that fractal geometry holds at lower levels.”

Abbas will refurbish the school’s electron scanning microscope, which he says has been “out of commission” for the past few years, to examine these potential inner fractals.

“A lot of the year is going to be spent figuring out how to work it, and that’s going to be worthwhile just to get that up and running,” he said.

Fractals are used in cardiac analysis and diagnostic imaging, and even cell phone components are shaped like fractals to improve reception.

“Learning the math’s going to be hard, but I’m pretty excited about it,” Abbas said. “It’s a class I look forward to all the time, and I think the enjoyment of it is in the challenge.”

Ben Greene ’14 and Jacqueline Ridgley ’14 wanted to recreate an ancient machine, so they searched online until they found a Greek device that inspired them both.

“I have this fascination with mechanical devices,” Greene said. “We were just looking at Wikipedia and thought, ‘That looks cool. We want to do that!’”

The pair will research and build a replica of an ancient Greek mechanism called the antikythera, which was used to track planetary orbits.

Scientists estimate that the antikythera was created around 100 B.C., when Greek astronomers knew of the existence of only five planets and believed all celestial bodies revolved around the earth. By turning a crank on the front of the antikythera, the Greeks could see the exact position of the planets on any date.

“It’s basically an ancient planetarium,” Greene said.

The duo plans to use the school’s three-dimensional printer to create the machine’s gears. So far, it only exists in the form of diagrams on the pages of Greene’s sketchbook.

“The actual process of bringing this into fruition, not just sketches in a book, is the hardest part,” Greene said.

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