Science is about discovery and often comes with surprises. UTC student Connor Frye’s research experience definitely had a lot of surprises.

At first, he wasn’t selected to do research when he applied for the summer of his freshman year. A few months later, Dr. Tom Rybolt, UC Foundation professor of chemistry, contacted him, asking if he wanted to join his research project in the fall. Frye readily accepted and spent the next 10 weeks working with Rybolt.

His second big surprise came when he found out his research was going to be featured on the March 2018 cover of Surface Science, an academic journal covering topics related to chemistry and physics.

“Dr. Rybolt and I talked about getting our research published a few times, but I never expected it to be on a cover of a journal. It was really exciting,” Frye said.

Rybolt’s and Frye’s research focused on carbon nanotubes, large molecules of pure carbon arranged in long, thin cylinders. Carbon nanotubes have several unique properties, including a higher strength than steel and better electricity conductivity than copper.

Carbon nanotubes are currently used in a variety of industries, including energy, aerospace and the manufacturing of stronger, lighter sports equipment. Carbon nanotubes tend to naturally cluster together in tight, parallel bundles, making them ideal for creating wire-like structures but challenging to use as molecular building blocks for more open structures such as filtering or storage applications.

Conner Frye presenting his research at the Southeastern Regional Meeting of American Chemical Society.

For their research, Rybolt and Frye wanted to create a more open structure of nanotubes. Shaped like the hashtag (#) symbol, the structure could provide more uses, such as creating 3D models and materials.

To create the hashtag shape, they had to design molecules that would hold the nanotubes in a perpendicular shape. Using a computer program, Frye designed molecules that would link together and maintain the hashtag structure.

For Frye, the research project was unique for a future scientist.

“Our work was kind of strange in that we actually finished something,” he said. “Normally in science, you start a project but you never finish it, and the next student continues it. But we actually found a nice endpoint.

“Research is different than working in a lab or a class. You get assigned a procedure and there’s not much thinking for yourself,” Frye continued. “With research, things don’t work constantly. We actually had an issue for a couple months where we realized pretty much everything we had done up to that point was invalid … There’s a lot of trial and error.”

After he graduates in May, Frye has plans to go to graduate school to study organometallic chemistry. He hopes to one day become a college professor.

The article he coauthored with Rybolt, “Nanohashtag structures based on carbon nanotubes and molecular linkers,” is available here.

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