Nano energy

Daniel Tappmeyer studies how nanoparticles can be used for quick ― but controlled ― energy release

Daniel Tappmeyer

Year in school:
chemical engineering with an emphasis in biochemical engineering
Warrenton, Mo.

Daniel Tappmeyer spends his time researching explosive materials that can have an energy content up to 2.5 times greater than TNT's. His research deals with a class of energetic materials known as thermite, which is simply a fuel and an oxidizer that react to release energy. In traditional thermites, these high energy levels are released slowly because the reaction can only occur where the fuel and oxidizer particles are in contact with each other. Tappmeyer's research with his mentor uses nanotechnology to make the fuel and oxidizer particles much smaller and then bring them together in a controlled manner resulting in a much faster energy release. Currently, several extremely toxic energetic materials are used as primers and detonators in both military and civilian applications, but another goal of their research is to replace those compounds with new, less toxic materials that have the same performance.

Tappmeyer is one of three Mizzou students who recently won a Barry Goldwater Scholarship, a national scholarship for college students planning to pursue careers in science, math or engineering. "During the application process, I spent some time thinking about why the government would sponsor a program to encourage students to go into research, and it made me realize that having a strong research sector is absolutely necessary to every aspect of our nation. Businesses require the latest technology to stay competitive in a global marketplace, our troops depend on advanced equipment to protect our way of life, and many of the things we enjoy as citizens, from everyday objects to advanced medical treatments, are made possible by advances made in research. The Barry Goldwater Scholarship helped me realize the broader impact and need for research."

And that broader impact is one of Tappmeyer's favorite things about his research, in partiuclar. "Several of the techniques we have developed to make energetic materials can also be used for other applications such as making nanoparticles for drug delivery. Another interesting property of some of the materials we produce is that they generate shock-waves when ignited. Right now we have researchers investigating whether this shockwave can be used for medical applications such as a handheld device for shattering kidney stones. As we are doing research we don’t always know what the final applications will be. Some of the projects I have worked on may have applications completely unrelated to our original reason for doing the research. I think that this element of the unknown is one of the most exciting things for me in my research."

Tappmeyer was only a couple weeks into into freshman year when he started working with Dr. Shubhra Gangopadhyay. Now, four years later, their working relationship has evolved from a typical employer/employee relationship into something more reminiscent of colleagues.

"Initially I had very little knowledge of my own and so I would talk with my mentor about what to do and then I would go and do it. What really surprised me is how fast I was given responsibility. With each passing week I found that my mentor was giving me less and less instruction and I was making more and more of my own decisions. Dr. Gangopadhyay always remained available if I had a question or ran into a problem, but I found that I was increasingly moving the project forward on my own with the help of her input instead of simply following instructions," says Tappmeyer. "I really appreciate the faith Dr. Gangopadhyay has in me, and that she encourages me to think for myself."

Tappmeyer has presented his work at the annual MU sponsored event called Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol. As part of the event, Tappmeyer and other students had the opportunity to speak directly with legislators about their research and why research in general is an important part of the university. But even though undergraduate researchers spend a portion of their time education others about why research is so important, they are still able to learn quite a bit about themselves in the process.

"My experience in research has taught me that it really is not about how much subject matter you know. What is more important is that you are able to think logically and solve problems," says Tappmeyer. "After graduation I may never have to use my knowledge of energetic reaction mechanisms, but the problem solving skills I have gained from research will be useful no matter where I end up."