C-CRAFT ushers in new era of fluorine research

Advanced research experiments, state-of-the-art laboratories, guidance from a top expert in the field - these are the exclusive benefits enjoyed by chemistry students studying fluorine at the University of Lethbridge, home of the new Canadian Centre for Research in Advanced Fluorine Technologies, or C-CRAFT.

Doug Turnbull, left, and Nathan Kostiuk have taken advantage of the practical learning opportunities provided them by Dr. Michael Gerken.

Over the last several years, the U of L has evolved into one of Canada’s premier institutions for studying the chemistry and physical properties of compounds containing fluorine, a versatile and highly reactive element used in a wide range of industrial and commercial processes and products. Playing a key role in that evolution has been Dr. Michael Gerken, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry with 12 years of experience, and an internationally distinguished fluorine chemist.

By launching C-CRAFT, the University will be able to serve as a hub for fluorine scientists and industry researchers worldwide to study and develop useful applications for this reactive element, which can be useful for everything from developing plastics, to performing medical imaging, to promoting cleaner oil production. It will also further enhance the department’s ability to provide high-quality, hands-on research opportunities to undergraduate and graduate chemistry students.

The new C-CRAFT institute, led by this stellar group of faculty members, creates a hub for fluorine research at the University of Lethbridge.

Among the students who have enjoyed those practical learning experiences is Nathan Kostiuk, a fourth-year chemistry student who has completed multiple for-credit independent study projects with Gerken, and who also worked for two summers as his research assistant. Helping facilitate Kostiuk’s investigations into fluorine has been his extensive access to the labs’ sophisticated research equipment, which include two nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers, a Raman spectrometer and an x-ray diffractometer.

“Being able to use these machines to conduct hands-on research is a huge advantage,” Kostiuk says. “Some things you can learn in a textbook, but it’s different when you can apply what you learn in a lab. What I do in the lab enhances what I learn in the classroom, and vice versa.”

Recently, Kostiuk and a graduate student in the Gerken lab analyzed sulfur tetrafluoride, or SF4, a chemical compound that can be useful to processes for the pharmaceutical and specialty chemical industries. Using the x-ray diffractometer, a machine for studying the structure of molecules in great detail, he was able to discern the molecule’s behaviour in solid form. It was the first time that this insight had ever been made in science, and his findings were published last June in the prestigious international scientific journal, Angewandte Chemie (German for: Applied Chemistry), published by the German Chemical Society. The accomplishment was rare, since at most universities, undergraduates have less access to leading-edge research equipment.

“I was really happy with that achievement, especially since I was just a third-year student at the time,” says Kostiuk, who is planning to pursue a master’s degree in chemistry after graduating. “Now, other researchers around the world can use it to help their own research.”

Another student who has been actively putting his classroom skills to use in the fluorine labs is Doug Turnbull, a third-year chemistry undergraduate. Turnbull came to the U of L with a budding interest in chemistry he had developed in high school, and was delighted to learn about the high-calibre expertise and facilities available in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

"I had been interested in fluorine at a superficial level, because it's the most reactive element, but at Lethbridge I was given the unique opportunity to gain a real-world idea of what fluorine chemistry is,” Turnbull says.

Turnbull has been conducting experiments involving fluorine and rhenium, another chemical element in the periodic table, to study how various reactions affect the geometry of rhenium compounds. He says Gerken’s insights and encouragement have made the lab learning exciting, and provided him with the confidence to continue exploring.

“This can be a challenging type of chemistry and the learning curve can be daunting. Michael makes it such a comfortable experience that you don’t have those worries anymore,” Turnbull says. “As far as his knowledge and communication style go, he is an outstanding supervisor.”