Russell Hughes, a Dartmouth chemistry professor, will receive the American Chemical Society’s 2010 Award for Creative Work in Fluorine Chemistry at the ACS national meeting on March 23. The award recognizes those who have “made an outstanding contribution or contributions to the field of fluorine chemistry,” according to the organization’s web site.
Hughes’s research on developing less environmentally detrimental chlorofluorocarbons, which are found in everyday items including refrigerators and air conditioners, is the result of nearly 30 years of creative research and collaboration with students and professors aimed at improving scientists’ understanding of fluorine compounds, Hughes told The Dartmouth.
Chlorofluorocarbon compounds are frequently used in medical and industrial items because of the strength of their bonds and the compounds’ inertness. They may, have negative effects on the environment, however.
“The problem is that when fluorine enters the atmosphere, it hits sun photons which break it down and disturbs the balance of the ozone layer,” Hughes said.
Hughes and his research team were able to break down the strong bonds of CFCs in order to “make the molecules more environmentally benign” by replacing the bonds with various other weaker bonds, Hughes said.
Hughes began studying fluorine chemistry during his time as an undergraduate at the University of Manchester’s Institute of Science and Technology in the United Kingdom, but said he credits the Dartmouth community with bringing his research to fruition.
“I did not really begin to work with fluorine until I came to Dartmouth in 1976 and met Professor David Lemal,” he said.
The many undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate students who have worked in his lab were an integral part of the successful completion of his research, Hughes said.
“You must have dedicated students to make your ideas work,” Hughes said.
Hughes also praised the College’s institutional framework, explaining that Dartmouth provided “a nice structure where everyone was learning from each other and the professor served as a guide.”
“The job of the professor,” Hughes said, “is to channel the enthusiasm of the students to produce useful things in the world.”
Hughes described receiving the award as both “humbling” and “overwhelming.”
“I find it difficult to imagine that someone thinks I belong on the same list as some of these previous winners” Hughes said. “It is a humbling thought but certainly not an unpleasant one.”
Although the award recognizes individual contributions to the field of fluorine chemistry, Hughes acknowledged that many others have contributed to his work over the years.
“The award means a lot of me personally but also represents the effort of so many people from over the years,” Hughes said.
Hughes said he hopes the award from the ACS, the world’s leading society of chemists with more than 161,000 members, has a positive impact on both Dartmouth’s chemistry department and on the College in general.
“The award is all the more surprising considering that a relatively small research department has received such visibility,” Hughes said.
Regarding his future research, Hughes said he plans to continue his study of fluorine by using computer models to better understand fluorine molecules.
“I haven’t run out of gas yet,” Hughes said.
The American Chemical Society did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Hughes arrived at Dartmouth in 1979. In fact, Hughes came in 1976.