Webcam Chemistry: An Unexpected Research Tool

Who would have thought that breakthroughs in chemical research could be made using the webcams we sit in front of during our zoom meetings? This is just what researchers did in Stony Brook University chemistry professor Karena Chapman’s lab.

Chapman’s research aims to understand the reactions that produce functional materials, such as those used in batteries and solar energy conversion devices. “If we understand the reaction pathway, then we can use this information to steer the reaction towards new, higher performing material products,” said Chapman, the Endowed Chair in Materials Chemistry. “But just opening the reactor at the end, once the reaction is over, to see what we made, misses the important, pivotal steps.”

Chemistry PhD student and Turner Fellow Bryan Sanchez Monserrate led the effort to watch reactions as they occur.  “We wanted to figure out at what times during the reaction the most interesting transformations happened,” explained Sanchez Monserrate. 

“In the beginning we thought we’d just snap a photo of the reaction every so often,” Chapman continued. “But Bryan had a better idea.”

“I’ve always liked taking things apart to see how they work,” said Sanchez Monserrate. “I adapted these skills for my research, building instrumentation to look at chemical reactions in new ways.” 

Chapman lab 1

Chapman confirmed, “If we have a problem with our experiments that can be solved using 3D printing or making custom electronics, Bryan is the first to dive in.”

The team pointed a webcam at the reactor and made it take snapshots every minute for up to weeks at a time. “We could see our reaction solution turn white as we made more of the white titania product” explained Sanchez Monserrate. Titania (TiO2) is found in widespread applications including as sunscreen and as a photocatalyst.

The series of photos were full of information about the reaction. “But we didn’t just look at pretty pictures,” said Chapman. “We were able to use the RGB values of individual pixels in the images to pull out quantitative details about the reaction.” 

In the end, the team was able to follow the time evolution of the reaction, evaluate the TiO2 particle size, and how these depend on the chemical starting materials.

Chapman and Sanchez Monserrate’s findings are described in a paper published by the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

“This optical imaging approach using a webcam offers an efficient, cost-effective way to compare how reactions evolve under different synthetic conditions, even for reactions that take days or weeks to complete,” said Chapman. “This changes the way we think about studying chemical reactions. While this time-lapse imaging strategy was devised to help prepare for our X-ray studies, we’re finding more ways to make use of this for chemical research.” 

“When you have the ability to make your vision a reality, then you are only limited by your imagination,” said Sanchez Monserrate.

The project was part of the GENESIS Energy Frontier Research Center, a Department of Energy funded center led out of Stony Brook and NSF-funded Research Traineeship program QuADS NRT. 

— Beth Squire

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