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WVU Tech professor awarded grant from NASA West Virginia ESPCoR Program


A West Virginia University Institute of Technology (WVU Tech) professor has received a grant to continue research on a project that will have implications on Earth and in space.

A headshot of Assistant Professor of Chemistry, Dr. Tarek Farhat. He is wearing a black vest.

Dr. Tarek Farhat, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at WVU Tech, was recently awarded nearly $5,000 for his research into an instrument that can detect salts and minerals in soil. This grant is the second such award he has received to continue this research by the NASA West Virginia Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). NASA WV EPSCoR supports activities related to strengthening the research of faculty in STEM disciplines in West Virginia.

“Suppose you send a probe to the moon or Mars, and you want to analyze the soil. You can install a complex instrument that is prone to getting damaged by vehicle landing impact. The instrument that I propose installing is simple to design, rugged and sturdy against mechanical damage. It can also work on Earth to analyze soils,” says Farhat.

A salt or mineral sample from the planet’s surface would be collected and put into the sample cell, designed and fabricated by Dr. Farhat and James Hoffman, Academic Lab Manager at WVU Tech, using a 3-D printer.

To analyze the data, Farhat uses a technique called AC impedance technique, a method used in electrochemistry, a specialty of Dr. Farhat’s.

One of the tools Farhat uses in analytical chemistry and research chemistry courses is a Potentiostat, an electronic device that induces and samples electric signals between two electrodes. The software processes measurements It also collects large data sets. The idea for this research project came from using this tool.

“A Potentiostat has many different electrochemical techniques, one of them is AC impedance,” Farhat explains. “I thought, this has been used many times in this way, I want to use it in a different way.”

Students also get to use the Potentiostat in experimental research in the classroom. Farhat hopes to have students work on this project with him when they return to campus in the fall.

The goal is to use this new technique to identify salts in soils.

“I noticed that not many scientists at NASA work with this technique, very few,” he said.

When the instrument collects and analyzes a sample of soil, Farhat developed a mathematical tool that can identify the different salts and minerals in the sample. With further research, a library can be developed to identify salts and minerals on topsoil on Earth, the moon or Mars.

“The advantage is that it’s simple, strong, sturdy and uses complex software. I am using the power of software to accomplish a major task for this simple hardware,” he says.

This was the second time this project was funded as he refined the instrument and analysis. The project began in May 2023.

“The WV NASA EPSCoR evaluation committee saw I was progressing and continue to support my research,” Farhat says.

Farhat continues to work on refining the hardware and analysis throughout the summer months and when he has time during the academic year. The research will be ongoing through 2025.