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College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Chemistry Student Researches Clean Energy

The University of Mississippi’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry is actively searching for alternative energy sources, and senior Matthew McDowell of Brazoria, Texas, is an important participant.

Since 2009, McDowell has been working with Nathan Hammer, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, researching clean energy through photocatalytic splitting of water molecules. This is the process of using a molecule as a catalyst to make it easier for light to break apart a studied molecule.

Drawn to the technical and engineering challenges associated with gas-phase molecular spectroscopy, McDowell became the lead researcher in designing and constructing a custom time-of-flight mass spectrometer, a machine that allows the specific choosing of a molecule of interest (in this case, water) to be studied without interferences from other molecules.

Through this research, the team hopes to find a catalyst that could be created to allow water to become a source of energy. This important research could not be done without the mass spectrometer McDowell built. The one-of-a-kind instrument comprises the majority of his work for Hammer. “Matt has been invaluable to me in building up my lab,” Hammer said.

And, while the mass spectrometer is currently set up for this particular research, according to McDowell, it’s versatile, too. “It was designed for this application, however it was also designed to be very customizable for any type of experiment that we want to do,” he said.

McDowell came to the University of Mississippi after spending eight years enlisted in the Navy as a nuclear engineer and an electrical engineer on a nuclear submarine. After his tour, he moved to Mississippi to attend the university, was accepted into the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College and pursued a chemistry degree. After graduation in May, McDowell will attend Johns Hopkins University where he plans to pursue a PhD in physical chemistry.