York chemistry student receives prize for her poster presentation

Anna Badaj, a York chemistry PhD candidate, is researching processes to develop new compounds comprised of a transition metal and organic molecules. Badaj was one of a select group of Ontario graduate students to present her research to a group of 180 scientists specializing in inorganic chemistry as part of the proceedings of the Inorganic Discussion Weekend, Nov. 28 to 30, at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.

Right: Anna Badaj with her prize-winning poster

The Inorganic Discussion Weekend, which was founded in 1968 by Barry Lever, a distinguished research professor emeritus at York University, draws students and researchers from universities in Ontario and Quebec. This year, 36 talks and 60 poster presentations were given to delegates. Four awards were handed out for poster presentations, and Badaj’s poster, "Coordination Study of Acyclic Imino-N-Heterocyclic Carbene Ligands to Group 10 Transition Metals", received a prize for fourth place.

In a nutshell, Badaj’s work focuses on the development of new compounds that could serve as catalysts for the development and preparation of new materials, such as plastics. A catalyst is a chemical substance that decreases the energy needed for a reaction to proceed. It is used only in small quantities and can be recovered at the end of the reaction to be used in subsequent reactions. The use of catalysts is highly economical. It is estimated that about 90 per cent of all chemicals are produced using a catalyst.

Badaj works with York chemistry Professor Gino Lavoie. "There is a great need to develop new and improved catalysts so that chemicals are produced using less energy. Furthermore, some compounds actually could not be produced in satisfactory yield and purity without the use of catalysts," says Lavoie. "Ms. Badaj addresses both issues. By varying systematically the organic molecule attached to the transition metal, we can gain insight into the impact of such variations on the behaviour of the new catalysts, therefore giving us control over the molecular structure of the plastic produced."

This control is critical as the properties of a plastic (such as hardness, toughness, stress resistance, elasticity, etc.) are directly related to the exact molecular structure, says Lavoie. "Plastics with regular or ‘perfect’ molecular structures exhibit characteristics very much different from those with irregular structures. A good understanding of a catalyst will allow us to target a specific material property and prepare a plastic with the required molecular structure, which is another way to say ‘for the preparation of new materials with tunable properties and performance’."

In the real world, the physical properties of polypropylene (a polymer or plastic made from the 3-carbon containing small propylene) depend on its molecular structure, which can be easily controlled using the right catalyst, says Lavoie. "Polypropylene is commonly used to make rugs, mats, ropes, bottles, bags and the like. However, plastics containing atoms other than carbon and hydrogen are more difficult to prepare in a controlled manner. For example, polymethylmethacrylate, which contains carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, also known as acrylic and plexiglas, is hard to produce with a ‘perfect’ molecular structure. New applications for these plastics could be developed if a ‘perfect’ molecular structure were achieved."

Badaj’s prize, says Lavoie, is a recognition of her work and of its importance. Posters were assessed by considering the presentation skills (both the poster layout and the verbal explanations), the student’s understanding of the aims and significance of the work, the content of the presentation and the ability to handle questions.