A Day in the Life: Prakhar Naithani ’17 Day in the Life, Johnson Opportunity Grant Winner, North Carolina State University's Forestry Biomaterials Department
“It felt wonderful to be finding something new to learn every day, whether it was tweaking the experimental procedures or getting my hands dirty working on the lab Freeze-Dryer unit to fix a faulty vacuum.”
Paper. A term that many people my age might associate with corded telephones or fax machines. However, just in the U.S., we use over 69 million tons of paper and paperboard. Every year we publish two billion books, 250 million magazines, and 24 billion newspapers! And those numbers don’t even account for the variety of consumer goods made from byproducts resulting from pulping processes. This summer I had the distinct pleasure of working at the North Carolina State University’s Forestry Biomaterials Department to conduct research into the chemistry behind lignin fractionation. Before I got started, I had to learn the reason why lignin, a byproduct of the pulping process, was an important area of research.
Lignin is an organic polymer that forms the structural material for supporting plant cells and, after cellulose, it is the most abundant renewable carbon source on Earth. Yet lignin has been underutilized in commercial applications. It is produced at a rate of several million tons per year as a byproduct of the pulping process, but is mostly used as fuel for power and heat generation. One of the biggest problems with using lignin is that since it is a byproduct of making paper products, there are many types of it produced worldwide from different pulping processes. What’s worse is that lignin is a polymer with a complex chemical structure of varying sizes. To even begin to make novel materials with lignin requires, first, a fractionation process to isolate homogenous quantities of the polymer. That’s why I worked in Dr. Dimitri Argyropoulos’s lab at NCSU to develop a solubility model to predict what types of solvents would be optimal in a lignin fractionation process. The lab had already invented a simple and green fractionation process, but they wanted to dig deeper into optimization and figuring out why solvents used in the process worked well in fractionating lignin. That’s where my expertise in Chemical Engineering came into play, as I was assigned the task to figure out the science behind the fractionation process.
My daily goal was to always understand why I was doing what I was doing. That’s a critical part of not only working in a graduate level lab, but also as an engineer who enjoys learning what makes things tick. In this case, I needed to figure out the interaction of lignin in various organic solvent mixtures such as acetone and water. That job becomes hard when very little literature has been published on the chemistry of lignin solubility and current solubility theory relies heavily upon experimental data for figuring out the parameters of a specific processed lignin. Many days were spent in the lab playing around with various solvent systems and lignin to gather enough data to use solubility theory for my model. It felt wonderful to be finding something new to learn every day, whether it was tweaking the experimental procedures or getting my hands dirty working on the lab Freeze-Dryer unit to fix a faulty vacuum. Along the way I interacted with graduate students to coordinate lab equipment, learned experimental tips, and worked to organize and build an inventory of all the lab chemicals. In the end, I came away with the experience of conducting independent research and learning how to swim in the deep end called the life of a graduate student. Currently, I am working with Dr. Argyropoulos to analyze our solubility data and publish a paper based on the model I developed. You could say that it was an amazing opportunity and not at all “tearable” (paper puns)!
I would like to thank Prof. Kacie D’Alessandro for helping me apply for the Johnson Opportunity Grant and Dr. Argyropoulos for being a dedicated mentor and allowing me to research in his lab.
Hometown: Morrisville, NC
Majors: Chemical Engineering, Business Administration
- Alpha Phi Omega
- Sigma Pi Sigma
- LEAD Banquet Committee
Off-Campus Experiences: Particle Physics in Switzerland, NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates at University of Iowa
Why did you apply for the Johnson Opportunity Grant?
I wanted to strike out on my own and conduct research in a department that usually does not have a readily available funding source for outside summer researchers. The Forest Biomaterials Department at North Carolina State University offered me a chance to tackle a persistent problem present in the paper engineering industry, while allowing me to pursue graduate level research. The Johnson Opportunity Grant helped to cover my living expenses as I conducted research on lignin solubility.
How did your work under the grant apply to your studies at W&L?
I worked on modeling lignin solubility in different solvent systems. This requires a working knowledge of the different solubility theories, which depend upon dispersion forces, polarity, and hydrogen bonding. As a Chemical Engineering major, my summer research dealing with solubility required both physics and chemistry to understand what happens when various lignin dissolve in a solvent system. The science behind solubility touches upon topics discussed in my general chemistry and organic chemistry courses such as enthalpy and entropy. Furthermore, solubility will be discussed in my physical chemistry and thermodynamics courses in the fall.
What was the most unexpected aspect of your grant experience?
Definitely the amount of autonomy I was given in the lab to carry out experiments and guide the progress of the research. I got to set my own schedule day in and day out depending on what I needed to accomplish. It was humbling to be given such independence in research considering I am still an undergraduate student.
Post-Graduation Plans: Masters/PhD program in Chemical Engineering
Favorite W&L Memory: Learning how to swing dance by the Liberty Hall Ruins at night
Favorite Class: Particle Physics Spring Term — It makes for interesting small talk when you can reflect back on the time when a weasel shut down the Large Hadron Collider.
Favorite W&L Activity: Getting food in Coop with friends late at night, because nothing leads to a good conversation like loaded fries.
Favorite Campus Landmark: The Colonnade, which is the best place to play Lee Ball — a cross between cricket and baseball.
Why did you choose W&L? I felt that W&L made the best argument for how it could help me develop not only as a student, but also as a person.
Why did you choose your major? Chemical Engineering allows me to pursue many of my passions from physics to math to chemistry. It does not pigeonhole me in any one discipline and truly gives me the freedom to explore a more collaborative education.
What professor has inspired you? Professor Irina Mazilu and Kacie D’Alessandro in the Physics & Engineering Department have been wonderful mentors for me as I was looking for research opportunities. They provided me with the guidance and support that enabled me to land a research fellowship and the Johnson Opportunity Grant. They are wonderful people who push their students to be their best selves.
Advice for prospective or first-year students? Never give up. It sometimes takes many setbacks before the pieces fit into the puzzle that is navigating college. Always keep exploring, and once you have found your niche make sure to give it your all.
What do you wish you’d known before you came to campus? Interact with people outside of your class year. Talk with upperclassmen in your field of interest to get a lay of the land and never be afraid to ask for help. Everyone at W&L has something valuable to offer and you never know when a casual conversation will land you your next summer internship.