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Summer 2014 Blog - Grace Vasiknanonte

Grace Vasiknanonte is spending the summer at the Academic Sinica in Taiwan

July 4th, 2014

With only four more weeks left, I am already counting down the time I have left in Taiwan. Although this marks the halfway point, the time is flying by. Just as I start to feel comfortable with my work, I realize I don’t have that much time left.

One month might seem like a lot, but I’m learning that in the research world, time is highly variable. So far, we have prepared multiple samples of our catalyst and started conducting tests on them. The catalyst consists of vitamin B9, carbon, and a cobalt-based precursor. For optimal efficiency, there are many variables to consider, especially pyrolysis temperature. Only after heat treatment, which changes the molecular structure of our sample, can the catalyst be effective. One of the interesting papers that came out of this lab was the use of vitamin B12 as a catalyst. It is suspected that the corrin structure found in vitamin B12 involving a transition metal in a ring-like configuration contributes to its catalytic ability. Among the different metals, iron has proven to have high yield whereas cobalt has higher stability. My mentor Mr. Huang has used iron with vitamin B9 in his previous work, so I will be using cobalt. Not much is actually known about how the structure affects the catalyst’s performance, so we hope that this study will provide more information through comparison.

Our four samples have been pyrolyzed at various temperatures: 300, 500, 700, and 900°C. After pyrolysis, the samples are prepared as inks for various tests. Preparing the ink is quite a lengthy process in itself. After mixing the components, drying the solution, and pyrolyzing the sample, the week is more than half over. We have completed a few electrochemistry tests on our pyrolyzed samples, revealing a general trend that a higher pyrolysis temperature will contribute to greater efficiency. Our test results also indicate that the ideal temperature lies somewhere around 700°C. Along with other tests such as X-ray diffraction and SEM, I plan to test the effect of metal content if time permits. Next week, we will conduct structure analysis on our samples. I’m looking forward to see what the data will reveal.

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Photo3: Electrochemistry setup for the catalyst that uses a rotating disk electrode to measure current.

There has been an influx of new people in the lab, most of them undergraduates and one new Master’s student with whom I’m working under Mr. Huang. She comes from the south of Taiwan, so she has taught me a lot about food and suggested some places to visit.

Only after I look back at my bucket list do I realize how much I have done in a month. The past two weekends, Alison and I have ventured farther than our usual wanderings downtown to Danshui, a historical coastal city, and Yingge, famed for its exquisite pottery. I could barely contain my excitement as I learned all about the materials science knowledge needed to create various types of ceramics at the Yingge Pottery Museum.

A special moment I had recently was an unexpected discovery on my way home from work. In the MRT station, the Taipei Hakka Cultural Park as noted on the station guide caught my eye and I decided to visit on a whim. Although it wasn’t open at the time, what I got was a nighttime tour of the city’s glittering lights and the scenic view of the beautiful Tamsui River. The park led to the Guting Riverside Park through which I took a bike ride using Taipei’s bike share system. As I rode along the winding path, I could feel a sense of unity with all the local residents, walking, biking, running, and enjoying the summer evening. The feeling was indescribable and this experience will easily become one of my favorite memories of Taiwan.

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Beautiful sights of the Taipei Hakka Cultural Park at night.


June 19th, 2014

It’s hard to believe that within two short weeks, I already feel right at home in Taiwan. Since my arrival, each day has been a whirlwind of learning and adventure.

My internship is under Dr. Kuei-Hsien Chen at the Center of Condensed Matter Sciences located on the National Taiwan University campus. I will be working in the hydrogen fuel cell subgroup, which focuses on developing a high-performance catalyst that could potentially replace platinum in proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells. Structure analysis is important in fully understanding the catalytic properties of the material in question, so I spent most of my first week combing through literature and papers that have been produced by the lab. I have also become acquainted with the procedures of synthesis and the equipment used to test our samples. Under the close guidance of a PhD student I am working with, I have begun developing a catalyst that utilizes modified vitamin B9, which is the focus of his research. We hope to optimize the conditions for greatest efficiency in order to shed light on how we can utilize these catalytic materials to their full function.

Outside of work, I’ve been loving the sense of openness in Taiwan. My lab mates have been exceptionally welcoming and friendly, taking me out to lunch and helping me expand my Chinese vocabulary. At NTU, I’ve dined on all sorts of local cuisine and enjoyed the scenery of the campus, which is worth a look around for any visitor. Close to my lab building, there is a pathway lined with palm trees and the beautiful Drunken Moon Lake teeming with ducks and aquatic birds. With an excellent public transport system known as the MRT, the city of Taipei could not be more convenient to explore. Alison (the other Cal Energy Corps intern in Taiwan) and I have been taking advantage of our free time to enjoy all the city has to offer, from our first bites of stinky tofu in night markets to window-shopping in crafts shops at the Huashan Creative Park. Our first weekend, Alison’s lab mate took us to the Keelung River to watch the races of the Dragon Boat Festival. We even visited a variety of museums and memorial halls with many contemporary art exhibits. These and the works we have seen in the MRT stations showcase the vibrant arts culture in Taipei.

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Dragon Boat team along the Keelung River

Most recently, we visited the Taipei Zoo and took a gondola ride up to the mountains of Maokong, famous for its tea cultivation. Our exploits have led us into interesting conversations with strangers, many of whom have a connection to Berkeley. It’s truly remarkable how much we can learn encountering new people and experiences with just a bit of curiosity. With my internship picking up steam, I’m excited for what awaits me in the coming weeks.

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The National Concert Hall at Liberty Square, near the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall

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