Spring 2012


Professor Publishes 10-year-old’s New Molecule

Chemistry Professor Robert Zoellner with a model of the tetrakis(nitratoxycarbon)methane molecule.Chemistry Professor Robert Zoellner with a model of the tetrakis(nitratoxycarbon)methane molecule.

WHEN KENNETH BOEHR ASKED his fifth grade class at Border Star Montessori School in Kansas City, Mo., to build molecules with modeling kits, he didn’t expect one of his students to make a scientific discovery.

But that’s what happened when Clara Lazen, 10, randomly arranged a unique combination of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon atoms. The result was a molecule that Boehr had never seen before.

So he emailed longtime friend and HSU Chemistry Professor Robert Zoellner, a computational chemist who models the properties of molecules.

“Ken sent me a picture of the molecule on my cell phone and usually I can tell right away if it’s real,” Zoellner says. This time, he couldn’t.

So he plugged the arrangement into Chemical Abstracts, an online database. Only one paper came up, Zoellner says. It was for a molecule with the same formula but a different arrangement of atoms than Lazen’s.

Zoellner dug a little deeper and determined that not only was Lazen’s molecule unique, it had the potential to store energy. It contains the same combination of atoms as nitroglycerin, a powerful explosive. If a synthetic chemist succeeded at creating the molecule—dubbed tetrakis(nitratoxycarbon)methane—it could store energy, create a large explosion, or do something in between, Zoellner says: “Who knows?”

Zoellner submitted a research paper on his findings to the January issue of Computational and Theoretical Chemistry. Both Lazen and Boehr are listed as co-authors.

In an interview with The Kansas City Star newspaper, Lazen said she never thought she’d be a published author by age 10.

“Most 10- or 11-year-olds don’t get their names in a science paper,” she told the paper.

The discovery has been featured on the Huffington Post, The Kansas City Star, Gizmodo.com and many others