As local farmers go about the task of spring planting, few realize that research taking place in a nearby laboratory may, eventually, help put a few extra dollars in their pockets.
Gopal Periyannan, a chemistry professor at Eastern Illinois University, believes that certain dead plant materials -- corn stalks, for example, or even saw dust -- can be broken down into useful chemicals for the manufacturing of items such as plastics or bio-fuel products.
In addition, he believes the conversions can be done at a microbiological level, allowing the procedure to be done with minimal energy and with few, if any, chemicals.
"It would be an economical and environmentally friendly process," Periyannan said. "And a process that could add to the economical value of a crop."
It's not a new idea. According to Periyannan, scientists worldwide have been actively pursuing this field of study for some time. In fact, he and many of his students have worked on their portion of the research for at least two years, he added.
And that research recently resulted in a $41,175 Single Investigator Cottrell College Science Award from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement.
RCSA, created in 1912, is America's second-oldest foundation and the first dedicated solely to science. Through its various programs, RCSA funds innovative research by early career scientists, both individually and in teams crossing traditional disciplinary boundaries.
The Cottrell College Science Award has the added goal of promoting the opportunity for undergraduate students to participate in cutting-edge research and experience that gives them a head start in learning to think like scientists.
The foundation's goal is to build and improve the scientific workforce to ensure 21st-century America's prosperity and security.
"The funding has a strong educational component of research," Periyannan said. "It allows us to provide research opportunities to our students, including two paid summer internships."
Matthew Payea, a chemistry major from Naperville, appreciates such opportunities. He admitted that he didn't expect to work so closely with his professors when he first came to Eastern.
"I always thought that was something reserved for students at research-oriented institutions like UIUC (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)," he said. And now, having experienced the one-on-one learning opportunity, "I wouldn't trade any of it."
"It's a great experience," Payea added. "As a student in the field of bio-chemistry, I appreciate this chance to work with Dr. Periyannan and others to learn the technology and skills that will help me in my 'real life.' I'm learning much more than I ever could in just a traditional classroom environment.
"It's a form of integrative learning that will help me become a much better chemist," he said.
Periyannan noted that some students actually get to present their findings before audiences at scientific conferences and other events, Payea recently presented his research at the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research. In addition to the educational advantages such presentations provide, it also proves how relevant the research is to the scientific world at large.
"I think the long-term implications of our research could be significant," he said. "Especially given the increased need and interest for renewable resources."
Periyannan doesn't expect any quick completion to his research, or that of the subject as a whole. For example, scientists still need to determine the long-term impact of removing residual corn stalks from working fields.
"The soil obtains some of it nutrients from decaying plant materials," he said. "We need to determine how the removal of that plant material might affect subsequent crops."