Portrait of Michael Gaultois. (Photo Courtesy: Scott Bell for the University of Saskatchewan).

Probing materials with X-Ray vision

Student will help develop new ceramics for more efficient fuel cells, semi-conductor devices for faster computers, anti-reflection coatings for eyeglasses, and materials to quarantine nuclear waste.

For Michael Gaultois, the bright lights of his native Alberta couldn’t compete with the Canadian Light Source synchrotron and its promise to help him reveal the secrets of advanced materials.

“Michael’s work will help scientists from many fields understand how to engineer ground-breaking materials,” says chemistry professor Andrew Grosvenor, Gaultois’ supervisor.

For instance, the University of Saskatchewan master’s student will help develop new ceramics for more efficient fuel cells, semi-conductor devices for faster computers, anti-reflection coatings for eyeglasses, and materials to quarantine nuclear waste.

“We’re not interested in fuel cells or computer chips per se,” said Gaultois who moved here from Edmonton to use the synchrotron at U of S. “We want to find the best techniques for characterizing materials, which engineers will then tailor for practical uses.”

Gaultois is one of only 24 students in Canada awarded the 2010 Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Julie Payette research scholarship. The $25,000 scholarship, named for the first Canadian astronaut to board the International Space Station, is given to students who show immense research ability and potential.

“Michael has a lot of questions, and he doesn’t sit around waiting for the answer,” Grosvenor says.

He has presented research at conferences in Vancouver and New Hampshire and gone on two research trips to the Argonne National Lab’s Advanced Photon Source outside Chicago.

Gaultois had a chance to explain his research to Governor General Michaëlle Jean in her native French when she toured the synchrotron in August.

“It was a short chat, but it still felt meaningful to talk with someone who is so incredibly engaging.”

He uses the synchrotron to better understand chemical compounds by measuring the “spectra”—the energy given off or absorbed by material when X-ray light is focused on it.

Gaultois with the Governor General. Photo Courtesy: University of Saskatchewan.

“If you understand the spectra, you understand the material,” Grosvenor says.

“Michael’s results have really stirred up interest because they will help scientists analyzing materials better understand how atoms influence each other and why spectral energies change.”

Gaultois says we all use spectroscopy whether we know it or not.

“Even your eyes are like mini spectrometers,” he says. “They interpret visible light, and make a picture for your brain.”

“The CLS synchrotron is just spectroscopy on a bigger scale. It gives you the feeling you have all of science at your command, especially when you consider that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment and oodles of devices are harnessing the particles zooming past you at near the speed of light.”

His research aims to describe what happens inside a solid chemical compound when the elements around it are changed. He’s investigating how chemical elements “get along when they hang out.”

While most chemists make solutions at 78 to 100 degrees C, Gaultois uses grinders, anvils, and torches to study materials formed at temperatures between 1,100 and 1,500 degrees C. Containing reactions at these temperatures isn’t easy, so they are often done in ceramic cups or in quartz glassware molded in the lab.

“Chemistry is beautiful,” says Gaultois, who plans to go on to doctoral research.

“With just a little bit of chemical understanding, we can explain an incredible number of things–from how soap works, to how we process gasoline–things that can benefit us all in a big way,” he says.

Lisa Johnson is a graduate student intern for the U of S research communications office.

This article first ran as part of the 2017 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the U of S Research Profile and Impact office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

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