James Mendez Ph.D.

Teaching Faculty, Chemistry
Primary Appointment: Assistant Professor of Chemistry, IUPUC

Education

B.S., Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, 2005

Ph.D., Case Western Reserve University, 2011

Current Research

My research interests focus on the extraction and isolation of chitin from underutilized sources. Right behind cellulose, chitin is the second most abundant natural polymer on the planet. Chitin and its slightly modified version, chitosan, have found uses in a wide variety of fields, ranging from agriculture to medicine. Even with its wide range of commercial uses, most chitin and chitosan is derived from a small number of sources, including primarily fungi and shrimp. My group is currently modifying existing procedures for the isolation of chitin from these conventional sources to use with other abundant materials, such as crawfish shells, cicada sloughs, mealworm exuviae, and lobster shells.

Research Image

As an extension to my group’s extraction of chitin, we are also investigating polymer-based chitin/chitosan composites for improved mechanical strength.  With its large amount of hydrogen bonding due to an abundance of acetylene groups, chitin is an extremely strong and durable material. However, this high degree of intermolecular bonding also limits solubility. By partially deacetylating the chitin, our group has made chitin/chitosan capable of being solution cast that maintains most of the properties of unmodified chitin. The addition of this chitin/chitosan blend to conventional plastics such as poly(ethylene oxide) has shown a marked increase in mechanical properties even at extremely low concentrations.

Chemical Education Research

One significant issue encountered at all levels of chemistry education is the difficulty in visualizing complex chemical properties at the atomic scale. For example, modern textbooks are attempting, with visually stunning graphics, to show three-dimensional structures and hybrid orbitals, but there is only so much a 2D picture can do to represent a 3D concept. Molecular model sets are a start but cannot capture the complexity of atomic structure. Utilizing 3D printing technology, my group is creating detailed three-dimensional models to represent general chemistry concepts too complex to visualize with ordinary molecular models such as electron orbit filling, hybrid orbitals, and polar bonds.