Virginia Tech's Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering has put the final touches on its new Subsurface Atmospheres Laboratory. Located in Holden Hall, the facility and its research reflect the collaborative efforts and dedication of academic professionals, industry leaders, and the department.

The new laboratory is the result of the combined efforts of Kray Luxbacher, associate professor of mining and minerals engineering, Harold McNair, professor emeritus of analytical chemistry at Virginia Tech, and Patrick Fromal, regional manager of Shimadzu Scientific Instruments Inc., manufacturers of a wide range of analytical instruments for research, development, and quality control in a variety of fields.

The centerpieces of the new lab are a Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometer (GC-MS) and Gas Chromatograph with Electron Capture Detector (GC-ECD) and Auto Sampler, which Shimadzu has donated to the department through a long-standing relationship with McNair. "Shimadzu is deeply appreciative of Dr. McNair's contributions to the scientific community and to Virginia Tech throughout the years," stated Patrick Fromal of Shimadzu, who is also an alumnus of Virginia Tech. "We see this as an extension of his work and are excited to be a part of the ground breaking research on improved safety that Dr. Luxbacher is conducting with the help of our equipment," added Fromal.

The work carried out in the new facility has been developed via a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health funded project aimed at better characterization of ventilation controls and improved emergency responses, and it offers real health and safety implications for underground miners.

"This equipment has allowed us to carry out cutting edge work in mine gas and tracer gas detection," said Luxbacher of the donated equipment. "We can detect and quantify routine mine gases, along with novel and traditional tracer gases."

In addition to the equipment donated by Shimadzu, the lab supports two additional gas chromatographs: one mine gas analyzer and another GC-ECD. The new lab provides considerable experimental capability in more than just mine ventilation, and the equipment enables the department to collaborate with other Virginia Tech colleagues in developing better gas sensing technologies. Future research may include the tracing of hydraulic fracturing fluids in shale reservoirs and CO2 plumes associated with carbon sequestration in coal reservoirs.

While the laboratory is able to carry out critical research, Luxbacher and McNair see it having a teaching role as well, since it can give students hands-on exposure to gas analysis and monitoring. "It is quite evident both Dr. McNair and Dr. Luxbacher share the same mentoring attributes and cultivate a wonderful learning environment," added Fromal. "They are tremendous researchers but you can see they are both ultimately educators at heart."

Luxbacher recalled, "When I first contacted Shimadzu with questions about gas chromatography (GC) equipment, they told me there was a world renowned GC expert in Virginia Tech's Hahn Hall," referring to the chemistry department and the man widely seen as having written the book on gas chromatography. "Dr. McNair is the quintessential university professor and has been a wonderful mentor. He sets very high standards for all of his students, is enthusiastic about applying GC to every field imaginable, and has much fruitful collaboration to his credit."

McNair is known by friends, students, and colleagues as one of the early pioneers of gas chromatography. He holds a bachelor's degree in chemistry and physics (magna cum laude) from the University of Arizona, and his master's and doctoral degrees from Purdue University. He served a Fulbright Post-Doctoral Fellowship at the Eindhoven Technical University in The Netherlands. His interests in separation science led him through a number of industrial positions before joining Virginia Tech in 1968. Since that time, McNair has made many significant research contributions. He has received numerous awards for his work, including most recently the LCGC Lifetime Achievement in Chromatography Award (2009). McNair was granted Professor Emeritus status in 2002; however, he is still actively engaged and funded in his research efforts.

Article written by Angelo Biviano.

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