Three-minute thesis winner hopes presentation clears up misconceptions

Certain members of Chris Allan’s immediate family may be a little confused about what he does in the university’s chemistry department, but he hopes a contest which forced him to explain it succinctly in three minutes or less might clear up a few misconceptions.

“My older sister thinks I make Advil liqui-gels and my younger sister tells people I make rockets,” the PhD candidate and winner of the university’s three-minute thesis competition quipped yesterday. “So I don’t know if they’re just pulling my leg or if they’re truly disinterested in what I have to say, but maybe this will shed some light on what I actually do.”

The competition began last week with 18 graduate students in two separate sessions. It wrapped up Monday with the eight finalists, and Allan – who works in the lab of professor Charles Macdonald – coming out on top.

For the record, Allan uses a method called x-ray crystallography to help better visualize and understand the molecular structure of a variety of materials. His current focus is on indium, a “fatter, heavier version of aluminum” and a primary ingredient in all LCD and touch screen devices like smartphones, flat screen televisions, and tablets.

Allan makes crystals from indium and analyzes them with x-rays.

“Using a very fine, focused beam of x-rays, we shine it onto our crystal and collect diffraction patterns with a certain type of film,” he said. “We can interpret the patterns and actually see the atoms, where they are, how far apart they are from other atoms, what angles they’re at and, with the aid of certain software, get the energy of the system. It’s a very powerful and indicative tool for elucidating structures.”

Indium is a depleting resource because of its widespread use in electronic devices, but by better understanding its fundamental properties, Allan hopes he’ll find other applications for its re-use such as degrading the compounds found in the chlorofluorocarbons emitted from aerosol cans, or for making polystyrene because it’s an “electron-rich” element.

“We really need to understand the chemistry of indium at the molecular level if we’re going to try and exploit it in the future,” he said. “If we can take indium out of televisions and use it to degrade solvents so that we don’t have to release them in to the environment, I think that’s a pretty big thing.”

Allan, who won $1,000 at Monday’s competition, said he’s planning on buying a new tablet with the winnings, given that electronics were such a large part of his presentation.

“I think it’s kind of a fitting prize,” he said.

Allan will head to Queen’s University on April 18 to participate in the provincials, and said his older sister, who lives in Kingston, should be in the audience. He’ll appear today on Research Matters, a weekly talk show that focuses on the work of University of Windsor researchers and airs every Thursday at 4:30 p.m. on CJAM 99.1 FM