With Kalamazoo College’s motto being Lux Esto, or Be Light, it makes sense that the International Day of Light, celebrated each year on May 16, is significant for some in the K community.
The date marks the anniversary of the first successful operation of a laser in 1960 by physicist and engineer Theodore Maiman, and calls on the general population to support scientific partnerships and their potential to foster peace and sustainable development.
Organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the International Day of Light recognizes the role light plays in science, culture, art, education and sustainable development, within professional fields as diverse as medicine, communications and energy. The broad theme allows many sectors of society to participate in activities that show how technology and culture can help achieve education, equality and peace.
On such a day, it feels natural for K to spotlight Kurt D. Kaufman Professor of Chemistry Jeff Bartz, a physical chemist, who guides the research performed by students at K’s laser lab, an uncommon research tool at liberal arts colleges and institutions of K’s size. Lasers play common roles in everyday life such as in supermarket barcode scanners, laser surgeries, and industrial cutting and fabrication. But Bartz and his students test theories in photodissociation, the branch of chemistry concerned with the chemical effects of light. Such research is fundamental in examining how molecules hold together or fall apart in Earth’s atmosphere.
Founded at K in 2001 with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the laser lab has supported dozens of students in their Senior Individualized Projects. Recently, students in the laser lab have researched the photochemistry of nitrous acid, an important source of hydroxyl radicals in the atmosphere. The presence of hydroxyl radicals affects the concentrations and distribution of greenhouse gases and pollutants in the atmosphere. When light dissociates nitrous acid, the products are the hydroxyl radical, symbolized with OH, and nitric oxide, symbolized with NO.
“Usually, people performing research will pick one to study [OH or NO] and try to infer what the other product is doing,” Bartz said. “But our lab now has the technology to have one student studying one product [OH or NO] and one student studying the other. We plan to have a full picture by studying both products directly. So this is a nice opportunity for our students. We always try to do something no one else has been doing, but we’re jumping out a little farther with this research.”
When asked what the greatest thing to come out of the laser lab has been, Bartz didn’t hesitate with his answer.
“That’s the students,” he said. “They’ve gone on to do some amazing things. Because of their work, the College is able to receive money from organizations like the NSF. These grants mean students can present their research at regional and national meetings, and I’ve been invited to give talks around the country. That’s a result of their hard work.”