When 16-year-old Pullman High School student Hongyeoul Park began a summer research project with Washington State University chemists to investigate the efficient conversion of methane into fuel, he did so with just one uninspiring year of high school chemistry under his belt.
"Chemistry did not spark any more interest in chemical engineering," Park said Tuesday, "but when I first heard about the research they were doing and how this research can somehow lead to making our environment a better place, I kind of felt intrigued."
Park was chosen this past summer to participate in the American Chemical Society Project SEED summer research program, a program that gives economically disadvantaged high school juniors and seniors the chance to work on research projects in laboratories alongside experienced scientists and mentors.
The 11th-grader had never before worked with real-world chemical engineering machinery in the classroom. Now he had a furnace, a hydraulic press, electron microscopes and more at his fingertips, as well as a $2,500 stipend.
For two months during the summer, graduate student Jake Gray worked with Park for variable hours each day, teaching him the basics of chemistry - everything from the concept of thermodynamics to the prospect of a chemical engineering career.
All the while, the pair worked together in the O.H. Reaugh Laboratory for Oil and Gas Research in Wegner Hall, continuing a research project Gray began five years ago as an undergraduate student, to develop a more efficient way of converting methane into fuel and hydrogen gas.
Park demonstrated some of the work he did over the summer in the lab Tuesday, mixing a greenish nickel nitrate solution in a beaker while Gray offered his advice and counsel.
Gray displayed a sample of the what the solution would look like in approximately three days - solid, nearly quarter-sized disks of nickel nanoparticles, supported on metal oxide.
Park has assisted Gray in trying to develop a more efficient conversion process using the disks as a catalyst - one in which reactions are run using electric fields rather than traditional catalysis.
Park was recruited to participate in the program by the director of the O.H Reaugh Laboratory for Oil and Gas Research, WSU Associate Professor Su Ha, who knew Park from church. Ha's research includes the generation of energy from alternative fuels.
"Methane itself, we have a lot of them, but we don't know what do with them," Ha said, adding the goal is to efficiently and chemically convert excess methane into something of value.
For Park, the idea that chemical engineering could, in broad terms, make the world a better place, was enough to get him interested in signing onto a summer of research.
"I personally love doing hands-on things rather than learning concepts," Park said.
Though he is still unsure what he will study in college, Park has the chance to sample several subjects through Running Start, a program that allows Washington high school juniors and seniors to take college courses at the state's community and technical colleges for high school and college credit. Gray has encouraged Park to experiment outside the lab and to try several new classes while he has the chance to find what he enjoys.
Whether that be chemistry or not, Park will at least continue chemical engineering research through the ACS next summer and a Summer II program that allows participants to continue their research or start a new project, this time with a $3,000 stipend.
Taylor Nadauld can be reached at (208) 883-4630, by email to email@example.com and on Twitter @tnadauldarg.