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Asst. Prof. Dunwei Wang (Chemistry), right, and senior Stafford Sheehan, a student in Wang’s lab, talk with a youthful BC football fan as he operates a hydrogen-powered toy car at a recent Fanfest. (Photo by Ed Hayward)

Making Science a Fan-tastic Experience

Professor uses BC football game days to boost interest in chemistry
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By Ed Hayward | Chronicle Staff
Published: Dec. 16, 2010
Saturdays in the fall may be made for college football, but they’re not too bad when it comes to chemistry, either, says Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dunwei Wang.

Prior to Eagles home games, Wang and students from his lab in the Merkert Chemistry Center set up shop at Fanfest, the pre-game celebration in the Flynn Recreation Complex for students, parents, alumni and fans.

Next to the bouncy house, Wang uses a radio-controlled car to catch the attention of the children attending Fanfest. They learn that the car doesn’t rely on batteries for power, but uses clean, environmentally friendly hydrogen as a power source.

“Football games are a big deal at Boston College,” said Wang, a native of China who admits he’s still learning the American game. “We thought it was a great chance to show people what kind of scientific research is taking place at Boston College and to reach out to children and let them know that they don’t have to be intimidated by science. Science can be fun and they can enjoy learning about it.”

Searching for new sources of clean energy is a big part of the research that Wang conducts in his lab. He has used nanotechnology to engineer “nanonets,” tiny, highly-conductive web-like structures that show promise as a new platform for a number of clean energy applications, including extracting hydrogen from water and building better lithium ion batteries.

While the nanonets are not on display, water-splitting is exactly what kids get a chance to do at the lab’s Fanfest station. It starts with fueling the car. Visitors press a small water-filled hand pump, generating the energy to separate – or split – hydrogen from oxygen. When the water within the pump is split, the hydrogen gas is stored in a small pouch. This fuel tank is placed in the car and it’s off to the races.

Children run the car through a course set up on the floor of the Plex basketball courts. Wang’s students time the racers and the top finisher gets to pick from a couple of solar-powered toys as prizes.

At a table, lamps are used to power toys that get their energy from solar panels. In addition to being pretty cool to look at, the devices offer Wang the chance to talk about how solar power and other clean energy solutions work. Wang says children – and adults – have great curiosity about the subjects. Most often, they’ve heard about solar power and hydrogen-powered engines, but they don’t know the science behind the technologies that have advanced furthest in efforts to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

“The kids ask a lot of questions and the adults ask a lot of questions too,” said Wang. “That’s exactly what we want to happen.”

Wang hopes to spark an interest in science, just as he was inspired as a child by articles he read about advances in superconductivity. Having grown up on a farm in rural China with no electricity, he was fascinated by the early breakthroughs and the idea that new materials could conduct electricity with zero energy-draining resistance.

Finding sustainable solutions to global energy problems motivates his work. 

“I enjoy the prosperity that development has offered us, but I do not like the prospect of what we have done to Mother Nature through this development,” said Wang. “That is a key motivation to develop clean technology, which we can enjoy and which will not devastate our environment.”

The message is one young Eagles fans are keen to understand.

“I like science, it’s my favorite subject,” said 12-year-old Angelina, who visited the clean energy display during a recent football game. “I don’t really know what hydrogen is, but I know about solar power. It would be great not to use gasoline and use the sun instead.”