Montpelier: James Madison University Magazine

Magnetic Attraction

Four colleges draw together in chemistry 'super' consortium

Story by Randy Jones

Magnetic Attraction A superconductor at JMU -- with a magnetic core that can erase a cassette tape or credit card at a distance of 7 feet and stop a watch at 3 feet -- has unified four area colleges into the Shenandoah Valley Regional NMR Consortium to benefit each school's chemistry students.

The device, a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer, or NMR, allows chemistry students at JMU and those connected by computer at three other colleges to examine the molecular structure of compounds, says Thomas Gallaher ('72), an analytical chemist in JMU's chemistry department.

A student, for example, can identify specific traits of molecules in a sample of vodka to determine whether the alcohol is derived from potatoes or grain. JMU chemistry graduate Jeff Cross ('98) conducted a similar "booze analysis" using the new NMR and presented his research at the American Chemical Society's national meeting last spring in Dallas. Throughout his last semester at JMU, Cross also used the NMR to collect spectra for up to 60 compounds for a textbook chemistry professor Bob Atkins is writing with University of Virginia professor Frank Carey.

Students at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Bridgewater College in Bridgewater and Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, meanwhile, can connect by computer to the superconductor at JMU and run their experiments online.

The university also has an older, 200-megahertz NMR still in service, though it lacks the power, sensitivity or resolution of the new 400-megahertz unit. "There are very few undergraduate colleges that have a facility like JMU's where there is both a 200-megahertz and a 400-megahertz instrument available with network capability," Gallaher says. "That's extremely rare."

The $424,000 instrument, similar to an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging device) used in hospitals, was purchased through contributions of $25,000 each by EMU and Bridgewater College and grants of $100,000 from the National Science Foundation and $75,000 from teh Merck Co. Foundation. The remainder came from various sources at JMU.

Familiarity with nuclear magnetic resonance is crucial to a chemistry student's undergraduate education, whether the student goes on to graduate school or into industry, Gallaher says.

"It's the most commonly used tool for organic analysis in industry and research institutions all over the world," he says. "Our students need to have experience with them."

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