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UI Researchers Receive Grant for Powerful Tool for Studying Molecular Properties

University of Idaho researchers will soon have a new tool for understanding the world at the molecular level, thanks to a grant from the MJ Murdock Charitable Trust and a major gift from a private donor.

by University of Idaho
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The trust awarded UI chemistry professor Richard V. Williams and his co-investigators $360,000 to purchase a nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, spectrometer, which uses a powerful super-conducting magnet to determine molecular properties. The NMR is expected to be installed on campus in April. 

Vandal alumnus John S. Townsend of Moses Lake, Washington, also donated $100,000 toward the NMR. Townsend, who studied chemistry at UI, is the former owner of Western Polymer, which produces starch for the food and paper industries. 

The NMR fills a vital need for researchers in the UI Department of Chemistry and other departments across the university, including geological sciences; plant, soil and entomological sciences; forest, rangeland and fire sciences; and chemical engineering.

“It is the preeminent instrument used in chemistry for structure determination, which is important in every branch of science,” Williams said.

The NMR will serve research projects by characterizing compounds that may be useful to create drugs to fight cancer and other diseases, understand soil structure to find out how it effects plant growth, and study useful materials made from waste such as potato peels. It also will support research into fundamental scientific questions, such as Williams’ work in controlling molecular properties.

In addition, Murdock awarded UI $38,000 to seed new research projects and give new users access to the NMR. Researchers can use these funds to purchase supplies needed to take advantage of the instrument’s power. 

The chemistry department already owns two NMRs – one teaching-level instrument and an aging research-grade spectrometer, which is nearly 20 years old and can no longer be updated. The old machine will be reconfigured to analyze solid samples, while the new NMR will allow researchers to obtain detailed information about materials in solution.

The new NMR also will increase UI’s capability to serve outside partners who contract with the university to provide NMR data and help defray the operating costs of the facility. Partners include the University of Montana, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Argonne National Laboratory and U.S. Department of Agriculture sites in Dubois and Kimberly, Idaho.

“The generosity of the Murdock Charitable Trust, Mr. Townsend and other donors has enabled the university to make this important investment for our present and future research,” said Jack McIver, UI vice president for research and economic development. “This new equipment allows researchers across campus, working both in their fields and in interdisciplinary teams, to explore the molecular structure of materials at a more detailed level than ever before at the University of Idaho.”