Dr. Eric Hardegree | Professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry

eric hardegree

Scientists worldwide are racing to find efficient ways to separate water into its two components, and ACU chemistry students are sprinting right alongside them.

The goal isn't to win a prize, although that's certainly possible, but to find ways to easily obtain hydrogen so that it can become a practical fuel alternative.

"Groups around the world are working on this, and we are one of them," said Dr. Eric Hardegree, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Hardegree usually has one or two students working with him on the research at one time. Their work has enormous implications and possibilities.

Sunlight and water

Hydrogen fuel cells are being touted as a possible fuel alternative for vehicles and other uses in the future. The issue holding back advancements is finding an efficient way to split water into hydrogen and oxygen without using fossil fuels such as natural gas and oil.

Hardegree's research involves using sunlight and a catalyst. The idea is for the catalyst to capture the light energy and use it to "crack" the water. "Then we can bypass the need for fossil fuel altogether," he said. "Every country in the world has access to some sunlight and some water."

Scientists may be "racing" to find answers, but their research more closely resembles a marathon. It's an ongoing process that takes place one step at a time, Hardegree said. And that brings the professor to another important aspect of science classes. The students are there to learn science, but they also learn the value of persistence and patience, he said.

100 steps closer

Even the great Thomas Edison once noted that if he found 100 wrong ways to do something, at least he was 100 steps closer to the right way, Hardegree said.

That is an important thought for science students to keep in mind, Hardegree said, because progress often comes slowly in the lab.

Sarah Sims, a senior biochemistry major from Abilene, knows exactly what her professor is talking about. She has been working on the hydrogen research with Hardegree for two years. The slow process can be frustrating, but Sims realizes how fortunate she is to be allowed to work alongside her professor in the lab.

Opportunities for undergraduates

In larger universities, that privilege usually is reserved for graduate students, she said, while undergraduates get stuck with the drudge work.

"That usually means washing dishes," she said.

Keeping the bigger picture in mind also helps when the process bogs down, Sims said. "It's good knowing I'm doing something that actually matters," she said.

And that is exactly what Hardegree emphasizes, in addition to what's in the textbook. Scientific breakthroughs can bring fame and fortune, but Hardegree wants his students to gain something much more valuable.

Science students can find a greater meaning in what they do, Hardegree believes, by understanding that they are discovering ways to take care of the environment and their fellow humans.

"We're not just in this for the money," he said.

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