The Columns

A Day in the Life: Prakhar Naithani ’17 Day in the Life, Johnson Opportunity Grant Winner, North Carolina State University’s Forestry Biomaterials Department

— by on September 21st, 2016

Prakhar Naithani '17

“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.