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Pieces of Eight


Research Fuled by High Temps, High Pressure

By Erica Plouffe Lazure

Yu “Frank” Yang is not afraid of high pressure.

In fact, this professor of chemistry thrives on it.

He has built a career on it.

And this year, as recipient of ECU’s 2005 Five-Year Creative Activity and Research Award, he has been rewarded for it. He will speak at noon on April 6 at the Bate Building, Room 1500.

Chemistry Professor Frank Yang has been honored with a Five-Year Creative Activity and Research Award, for his work on how water at high temperatures and at high pressure can isolate and separate chemicals. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

“One of the activities in this lab is using water as a solvent to clean hazardous chemicals and contaminants from environmental solids,” Yang said. “We are using high- pressure, high-temperature water.”

Ever since he arrived at ECU, in 1997, Yang has been researching practical applications of “subcritical” water. Yang found that water in a state of high pressure and high temperature is able to isolate and separate PCBs and other toxic chemicals from soil samples. Yang, who has received more than $300,000 in grants and has published more than 40 research articles in the past 20 years, is optimistic that this method, known as “Green Chemistry,” could be a viable alternative to chemical solvents.

“By keeping high-temperature water in a liquid state, it behaves like organic solvents and is able to separate the contaminants from the soil,” Yang said.

Traditionally, organic solvents are used to extract pollutants from soil and sediments. The problem with organic solvents is that they are expensive and also hazardous to the environment. Yang is optimistic subcritical water would provide a relatively inexpensive and non-toxic solution to clean up areas contaminated by pesticides and other toxic material.

“Every chemist knows that water at room temperature is very polar and that most contaminants are non-polar,” Yang said. “When water increases in temperature and pressure, its polarity decreases dramatically to a level similar to many organic species. So, the solubility of the organic contaminants in subcritical water is intensified.”

Yang has also found that subcritical water could be useful in chromato-graphy applications. Chromatography is a method used to separate, identify and quantify components of a gaseous or liquid mixture, and is often used by pharmaceutical plants, food companies and other manufacturing firms.

“If you inject a solution that has fifty different components into the system, you should have 50 different, identifiable peaks,” Yang said. Each “peak” corresponds with a chemical compound. “What usually happens is scientists use organic solvents in chromatography to achieve the goal of separation of a given mixture. Instead of using solvents, we use subcritical water.”

Yang was educated in China and Germany. He came to ECU after working for several years at the Energy and Environmental Research Center in North Dakota. He has presented his research at dozens of international and national conferences and has received grants from Research Corporation, Hewlett-Packard and the Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh. In addition to several teaching awards, including the UNC Board of Governor's Award for Distinguished Teaching, Yang has also received six research grants from East Carolina University. He was awarded the Five-Year Creative Activity and Research Award at a ceremony in August.

Yang hopes to continue to expand and broaden his Green Chemistry research. However, he acknowledges that it will still take some doing to convince industries to change their methods of operation.

“It is still a new technology. And new technology takes lots of time and money. If you think about the environmental concerns, like pollution, and possible remedies, a lot of work still needs to be done and this could benefit lots of people,” Yang said. “I would like to put this to work and help more people. Billions of liters of organic solvents can be saved. Not enough people realize that.”

This page originally appeared in the March 10, 2006 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at