Fluorescent light research conducted by area scientists

Saint Joseph's College chemistry professor Nick Benfaremo of South Portland is a part of a five-member team of area scientists awarded a $360,000 dollar federal grant from the National Science Foundation to research fluorescent light. The project will pose new scientific questions, provide undergraduate research opportunities and perhaps even assist in construction of devices that can detect explosives in airports. (Fluorescent light is very sensitive and is able to detect the nitrates in explosives easily.)

The project includes faculty scientists at the University of Southern Maine, University of New England, as well as Benfaremo and select undergraduate students at the named colleges. The team is working to make organic materials that fluoresce and give off a variety of colors, rather than just the typical bluish color. Dr. Benfaremo calls the work fundamental research, in the sense of discovering new approaches. "It's like a new alphabet," he says. "If you have a four-letter alphabet you can only do so much. If you're given a 26-letter alphabet. you can make brand new words and ideas."

Team members are posing questions about the properties of the molecules and asking: If you alter their environment, does it change their behavior? Fluorescent materials absorb light energy in one frequency range (typically UV light) and give light off at a lower frequency (typically as visible light.)

Funded by a grant under the Research in Undergraduate Institutions, a program of the National Science Foundation, the project gives undergraduate students a chance to learn more sophisticated techniques, attend professional meetings and present their research to other scientists. "Involvement at that level would not be available to students through the average college course," says Benfaremo.

Although the project isn't generating a product for consumers, it is beneficial to the field. "It's like a movie," Benfaremo says. "It's not a product that you use, but it changes you and the way you look at things."

December 11, 2008 Contact: Charmaine Daniels at (207) 893-7723 or e-mail cdaniels@sjcme.edu ">cdaniels@sjcme.edu