Taras Nagornyy

Research Aimed at Greener Transportation Solutions

Taras Nagornyy ’24 conducts research that seeks to minimize the release of harmful gases from vehicles with diesel engines, such as trucks, trains, ships, and military vehicles.

Taras Nagornyy '24

Chemical Engineering and Chemistry

Needham, MA

What drew you to this field of study?

I first encountered the world of chemistry in high school in Russia. After moving to the United States, I took a job at Starbucks while also attending classes at MassBay Community College. At Starbucks, the satisfaction I found in troubleshooting issues and solving problems earned me the nickname "Store Mechanic."

The significance of education was clear to me, leading me to transfer to UMass Amherst and choose chemical engineering as my major. Like other engineering types, chemical engineering revolves around solving problems, and I was attracted to its distinctive blend of engineering and natural science. The major’s versatility also appealed to me, as it allows for exploration across fields such as chemistry, material science, biochemistry, mathematics, and coding, enabling us to combine fundamental concepts to address real-life challenges.  

How do you conduct your research?

I have been engaged in research in Professor Wei Fan's lab in the Department of Chemical Engineering for over two years. Our focus is on addressing harmful nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from diesel engines commonly found in trucks, trains, ships, and military vehicles. Our approach involves using a catalyst known as Si-LTA zeolite to convert the detrimental NOx gases into safe-to-breathe nitrogen (N2) gas. However, the industrial preparation of this catalyst involves using hydrofluoric acid (HF), a substance known for its extreme danger and toxicity (it can easily dissolve bones if it contacts the skin).

In my research, I'm exploring the potential to use much less dangerous ammonium fluoride (NH4F) as a substitute for HF. This involves preparing the precursor (raw mixture), subjecting it to thermal treatment, and observing the crystallization process. Using x-ray diffraction analysis (XRD) and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) equipment, I analyze the samples to determine the success of the synthesis. Our findings indicate that not only can ammonium fluoride be used to synthesize the catalyst, but it also significantly expedites the synthesis process. We are currently preparing a paper to share these findings in an academic journal.

Speaking to the breadth of the chemical engineering major, I have also conducted research on polymers, both through Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs at Arizona State University and the University of Delaware, as well as in Professor Sarah Perry's lab at UMass. After joining Professor Perry's lab in fall 2023, I embarked on a project focused on encapsulating proteins with polymers. This innovative approach aims to enhance protein stability used for vaccinations, potentially eliminating the need for refrigeration during storage and transportation.

What do you see as the impact—or potential impact—of your work?

The work conducted in Professor Fan's lab contributes to global efforts to reduce harmful gases in the atmosphere. This research has the potential to contribute to improving quality of life by decreasing acid rain and enhancing air quality, particularly benefiting people with lung disease. The discovery of a safer and more effective method for producing the catalyst not only minimizes risks for chemical industry workers but also enhances the feasibility of large-scale production of the catalyst.

In Professor Perry's lab, our research has implications for making the delivery of vaccines more accessible, especially in developing countries. By increasing the stability of proteins in vaccines through polymer encapsulation, we aim to eliminate the need for costly refrigeration during transportation—a crucial aspect known as the "cold chain."  

As an engineer, it's particularly rewarding to know that the research isn't just theoretical; it's meant to be applied to solve real-world problems.

Taras Nagornyy ’24

How does your faculty mentor support your research?

Working in Professor Fan’s lab has been crucial in shaping me as a researcher. When I was a newcomer to research, Professor Fan and his graduate students trained me in all major lab techniques as well as essential communication skills. The mindset and skills I’ve developed greatly helped me during my REU programs.  

Starting early as a sophomore, I was excited to have a hands-on research project related to a real societal challenge. This provided training in both experimental instruments and communication skills.  

As I became more confident and independent in my work, Professor Fan gave me the freedom to explore. While letting me work on my own, he remained a supportive figure, providing valuable advice and helping set final goals for my research. He also supported me in attending local and national conferences, where I had a chance to network and meet students, professors, and professionals from industry.

In the Department of Chemical Engineering, I've found the faculty to be very supportive in general. When I sought to explore different fields before starting my PhD, Professor Fan was very encouraging, and Professor Perry and her graduate student welcomed me into their lab and supported me as well.

What do you find most exciting about conducting research?

The thrill of making things work, especially when I understand the underlying principles of why they succeed or don't. As an engineer, it's particularly rewarding to know that the research isn't just theoretical; it's meant to be applied to solve real-world problems. It's the connection between theory and application that keeps me engaged and excited in the research process.

What are you most proud of?

I'm proud of how much I've learned and how far I've come in understanding how research works and how to approach problems, along with the many specific lab skills I’ve acquired. The deeper I've delved into research, the easier it has become for me to apply these generalizable skills to different projects. I've also thoroughly enjoyed learning about and working with various types of analytical equipment. I believe these experiences will be valuable in my future education and career.

How has your research enhanced your overall educational experience at UMass?

Research has provided me with the opportunity to delve deeply into various topics, allowing me to learn more about my interests and decide where to focus my attention in graduate school. Without research, I would only have theoretical, course-based knowledge, which I don't believe would be sufficient for my future plans. It's also fascinating to see concepts from class connect to experiments in the lab, enhancing my understanding as I delve further into the subject.  

What are your plans for the future?

I am currently applying for PhD programs in chemical engineering. My ultimate goal is to contribute to the pharmaceutical or material science industry as a senior scientist, bridging the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical production.  

Having come from a community college background and having a passion for teaching, I envision myself as a part-time lecturer, potentially at a community college like MassBay. This role would enable me to actively contribute to mentor others academically and help them achieve their dreams.

Why would you recommend UMass to a friend?

I highly recommend UMass because it's a large and diverse school, offering ample opportunities for exploration. The expansive campus allows you to take classes across various departments and pursue minor degrees in addition to your major. In the Department of Chemical Engineering, there are abundant opportunities for undergraduates to engage in research. Notably, individuals from Amherst College also collaborate on research projects, and the faculty are exceptionally supportive [and] readily available during office hours.

The commitment of the faculty is evident in their desire to provide students with the knowledge and support needed for success. The Department of Chemical Engineering, along with sister departments, offers valuable classes and training opportunities for those preparing to enter the industry immediately after earning their BS.  

Also, UMass has very good food, in-state tuition, and financial support! 

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