Outside of the classroom, Mary McCorkill, a senior majoring in chemical engineering, can be found in the Supercritical Fluids Lab at Virginia Tech, operating novel high-pressure equipment to determine the way materials behave as a function of temperature and pressure. Her undergraduate research, a project funded by the National Science Foundation, has been focused on understanding the behavior of ionic liquids and their mixtures at pressures up to 6000 psi.

Ionic liquids are molten salts that are being explored as future-generation sustainable solvents in chemical processes and in energy-storage devices, such as batteries. McCorkill generates valuable information on how these materials will behave in chemical processes at elevated temperatures and pressures.

“The most important thing I have gained through working in the lab is seeing how the concepts we learn throughout our chemical engineering coursework can be practically applied,” McCorkill said.

McCorkill joined the Supercritical Fluids Lab directed by Professor Erdogan Kiran the summer of her sophomore year after taking Kiran’s Thermodynamics course in the Department of Chemical Engineering. She remained in the lab throughout the rest of her time at Virginia Tech citing the “invaluable experience of working with and learning from [her] research team.”

Mary McCorkill works in the Supercritical Fluids Lab in the Department of Chemical Engineering
Mary McCorkill works in the Supercritical Fluids Lab in the Department of Chemical Engineering.

“Having Mary in the lab is like having another graduate student. She is here every day performing experiments and reading publications, and she is currently working on a first-authored publication,” said James Dickmann, a Ph.D. chemical engineering candidate and her mentor in the lab. “We spent the last year together synthesizing our own ionic liquids because we were not able to find a supplier, and Mary really took lead performing all of the reactions.”

During her time as an undergraduate researcher, she has contributed significantly to the field of high-pressure research as a co-author on two publications related to the understanding of ionic liquids and their mixtures.

McCorkill was also acknowledged for her contributions in two additional publications on polymer modifications with supercritical carbon dioxide. She presented a portion of her work at the 17th European Meeting on Supercritical Fluids and the seventh European Meeting on High Pressure Technology in April 2019 in Ciudad Real, Spain.

She was recently awarded the Virginia Blue Ridge Section of the American Chemical Society’s James Lewis Howe Award, which recognizes outstanding achievements by college seniors in chemistry-related areas. After graduation, she will join NanoSonic in Pembroke, Virginia, as a research scientist – a career path she says was inspired by her time as an undergraduate researcher at Virginia Tech.

Written by Joseph Sarver