University Assistant Professor of Chemistry Tuo Wang and his students are the first to investigate an intact corn plant stalk at the atomic level.
In the world today, there is a lot of interest in discovering better biofuel. Most gasoline today includes 10 percent ethanol due to the long-term funding and research dedicated to this area of chemistry study. Corn is not the only plant usable in biofuel, Wang said.
“[Scientists] have devoted at least a decade trying to improve the biofuel production and ethanol production,” Wang said. “With this atomic level, now people can improve their matters. It opens a lot of possibilities.”
Wang and his team examine the corn using a strong magnet located in his lab, located in the basement of Choppin Hall. The magnet uses nuclear magnetic resonance, which aids in viewing the nuclear spins. Nuclear spins tell the total angular momentum of the nucleus.
Wang and his team use the stem of the corn in their experiments. Wang says that they cut the corn stem into small pieces and pack them into a container. After that, he and his team put them through the magnet, and the magnet gives the corn a lot of radiation. The radiation then polarizes the atoms, so that he and his team can see them, Wang said.
Wang's group is not limited to plants, his team also studies fungi. Their research is mostly based on carbohydrates.
Wang is most interested in the subtractor side of this process, which is the housing of the assembly of molecules that network. An example of subtractor is the part of the plant which is the primary cell wall is the faster growing part. It shifts the focus to the secondary cell wall which is the part where the cell stops growing. Where the cell stops growing, the plants become thicker, and that helps create biofuel, Wang said.
Corn is related to biofuel in the fact that ethanol, seen in most gasoline today, comes mostly from corn. According to Wang, one third of the U. S.’ corn is eventually converted to ethanol.
Wang's background is in physical chemistry. He got his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Now, his research includes him studying biological systems, which is considered more of a biophysical chemistry.