Industrial Complex

Penn undergraduate named 2015 Society of Chemical Industry Scholar.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

By Rebecca Guenard

This summer Alan Dai, a junior in the Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research (VIPER) will scale up his research experience to the industrial level. As the recently named Dupont Society of Chemical Industry Scholar, Dai will spend ten weeks at Dupont in Newark, Delaware learning to improve the manufacturing process of agricultural materials. He hopes the experience will help him decide between a career in chemistry or chemical engineering (he is double majoring in both), academia, or industry. But Alan Dai is certain of one thing: his passion for research is indelible.

Dai's research aspirations began in high school while contemplating the world’s energy use. “I was always interested in figuring out ways to make energy more sustainable or just more efficient in general,” he says. Eager to tackle this problem, he immersed himself in the sciences. As most freshmen were getting their bearings on college life, Dai was selecting a lab where he could participate in energy research the summer after his first year at Penn. 

Dai joined the lab of Assistant Professor of Chemistry Eric Schelter to unravel the separation issues surrounding rare earth elements, crucial to clean energy technologies. Though scarce in highly concentrated deposits, rare earth elements constitute a large portion of the earth’s crust. Current mining and refining practices involve toxic acids and result in radioactive waste—hardly ideal recovery procedures if the goal is green energy. Dai performed organic and inorganic synthesis to create a compound that selectively binds to one metal and enables a non-toxic separation from a mixture. 

Over two summers Dai accepted failure along with success and contributed to the research efforts in the Schelter lab. “The name of the game of research is that you are trying new things, so things are bound to go wrong or else someone would have done it already,” he says. His research advisor concurs. “All synthesis is hard, right? You fail most of the time,” says Schelter. “But he was a person who dived right in and made some nice compounds and made some nice progress.”

Dai credits much of his research focus and fortitude to the VIPER program, which channels students into research labs immediately following their freshman year. Students in the program are prepared for the experience during a spring seminar that instructs them on all aspects of research: performing it, analyzing it and presenting it.

Schelter believes Dai’s drive to work through fundamental problems to effect a bigger change will be an asset during his internship. “It’s such a nice opportunity that he gets to work in industry and that he gets to work with people really driven by development of a product that turns into something in the real world.”

After his internship at Dupont this summer Dai plans to refocus on his pursuit to find an answer to the world’s clean energy problem. "Maybe someday," he says, "I will start an energy company of my own."