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Undergraduate Research Experiences and ASTM Committee D05 on Coal and Coke

by John T. Riley

As a college professor looking for research projects for my students 25 years ago, I discovered a valuable resource in my participation in ASTM technical committee activities. I had joined ASTM Committee D05 on Coal and Coke, and discovered that attending standards development meetings and listening to the professionals who develop and use ASTM standard methods provided me with not only useful information that enriched my classroom lectures, but a wealth of research projects. In the years since, I have discovered that undergraduate and graduate research projects inspired by the real-world development of ASTM standards…

• … are relevant research and development work ideally suited for undergraduate research projects;
• … are multidisciplinary projects that entail collaboration among professionals in academia and industry;
• … lead to presentations and publications coauthored by students and professionals; and
• … produce well-trained graduates ready to enter the professional work force.

A Win-Win Scenario

Almost all college and university science programs encourage their majors to participate in undergraduate research. Many programs require it. Usually the relevance of a research project and the rewards from participating in the project must first be demonstrated before a student will commit to working on the project. This is especially true when research credit is not required for the student’s major.

When using ASTM standards development as the springboard for research projects, students will quite often see the benefits of their research and how their results are put into practice. In addition to undergraduate projects, some ASTM work can be assimilated into master’s and doctoral projects.

Industrial professionals come to ASTM technical committees looking for help with a wide variety of problems affecting their industries. Solutions include improved analytical procedures, better materials preparation and handling, quality control, the development of professional short courses, etc. These problems can become the vehicle for getting industry to partner with university professors and their students. A good partnership quite often leads to the sharing of information and materials as well as occasional financial support to the university.

An ideal partnership allows students to work on a research project both at the university and an industrial site under a cooperative agreement that benefits both the industry and the university. A successful project often leads to employment of the student by the industrial partner upon graduation. Working on ASTM-related projects provides excellent training for industrial careers, especially when the project involves academic-industry partnering.

One Professor’s Experience

In the last 25 years there have been some tremendous changes in the development of new standard methods of analysis within ASTM Committee D05. I was fortunate enough to be involved in the development of some of these standard methods and used the opportunity to have many of my students work on research projects that provided input into the development of the procedures for the standard methods.

There is a tremendous amount of work that must be done in between the time a task group, with the goal of developing a standard method of analysis, is formed and a successful interlaboratory study to collect data for the standard’s “precision and bias” statement is completed. This type of research and development work is ideally suited for undergraduate research projects. Several advanced undergraduate students contributed round-robin (interlaboratory study) data for the task groups on which I served, and some of these students actually organized and managed the interlaboratory studies run from the Western Kentucky University Materials Characterization Center. As for the relevance of their research, what better way is there to demonstrate to a young professional how important their work is than for them to see some of it published annually in an the Annual Book of ASTM Standards?

The work needed for the development of test methods includes various forms of ruggedness testing, including studies of interferences in a particular analytical procedure, improvements in the sensitivity of a detection method, comparison of different analytical procedures, limits on the types of samples that can be tested, and so on. The intended result of these tasks is the development of a standard method of analysis that is robust and which will hold true in daily use around the world.

Most of my work in Committee D05 has been the development of instrumental methods of analysis for coal, coke, and the residues from utilization of coal and coke. Table 1 presents a summary of the standard methods that were developed or revised with input from Western Kentucky University students, including development of analytical procedures from their research projects, management of interlaboratory studies, or contribution of study data. In addition to the methods listed in the table, ongoing projects now being investigated by students are the development of a high temperature combustion method for determining chlorine and fluorine in fuels and a more uniform method for determining loss-on-ignition of combustion residues.

The investigation of interferences in analytical methods, comparison of analytical procedures, or ruggedness testing done as part of the development of an ASTM test method always raises many questions about the chemistry and physics of a particular procedure. Such questions have been the starting point for many of the research projects that my students and I have created. Information gained in discussions with ASTM members, usually at committee meetings, has been very helpful in defining which areas of study will support the ASTM standards development work. Table 2 shows a compilation of research topics related to ASTM standards development that Western Kentucky University students have undertaken over the last 25 years. Of course, the list far exceeds the actual work associated with the development of ASTM standard methods, but all of the work is in some way related to, or has benefited from, the ASTM projects.

Fortunately for my students, my colleagues, and myself, almost all the work at Western Kentucky University has been supported by grants. For many years we have been very successful in acquiring competitive federal and industrial grants, primarily because of good projects that include collaboration among professionals in academia, industry, and federal agencies. Another very important reason for our success in acquiring grants is that most of the work supported by this funding has been applied research with very practical benefits for our university and students.

Figure 1 shows the number of professional papers and presentations co-authored by Western Kentucky University students, my colleagues, and myself that have resulted from the topics listed in Table 2. About half of the papers are in professional journals and the rest are in proceedings of professional meetings. Almost all the publications are co-authored by students. The presentations, many of which were by students, were made at regional, national, and international meetings. Note that there is a gradual increase in the number of publications and presentations per topic over the years (the topics are arranged in approximate chronological order in the table). This trend can be attributed to several factors, including an increase in participation by more colleagues and their students, the amount of funding acquired to support the projects, and the importance of the topic. In recent years the focus of most of the work has been on combustion and emissions of pollutants from combustion. Thus, mitigation of emissions is the topic with the greatest number of publications (29) and presentations (32), followed by combustion of fuel blends (17/29) and mercury in coal and mercury emissions (16/20).

The projects presented in Table 2 and Figure 1 are just a portion of the projects discussed at ASTM Committee D05 meetings. There is a lot of work awaiting eager investigators in this committee and there are a lot of research projects looking for homes in academic institutions. I am quite confident that many ASTM committees have the same situation.

Almost all the students who worked on the ASTM projects listed above are now all professionals and several of them have continued ASTM work. These former students are university professors, physicians, dentists, research chemists, high school teachers, engineers, lab managers, or hold other professional positions.


What better way to learn than from actual experience with relevant, real-life problems facing a vital industry? What better teaching methods are there than those involved in addressing the needs of industry? How much more relevant can classroom instruction be to business than to address pressing business needs? ASTM can be a vital focal point where academia and industry can partner to their mutal benefit.


The author gratefully acknowledges the helpful comments of Ron Graham, Lou Janke, and Jim Luppens during the preparation of this article.

Copyright 2004, ASTM International

John T. Riley is a recently retired professor of chemistry at Western Kentucky University and serves as director of the university’s Materials Characterization Center. He is vice chair of ASTM Committee D05 on Coal and Coke and has served as chair of D05.29 on Major Elements in Ash and Trace Elements of Coal, secretary of D05.21 on Methods of Analysis, and chair of several task groups.

Student membership in ASTM International is free of charge and available to full-time undergraduate or graduate university-level students. Benefits are numerous and include free electronic access to certain ASTM publications, free attendance at ASTM symposia, opportunities to publish, and a reduced membership fee upon graduation.