Las Vegas, N.M. — New Mexico Highlands University chemistry graduate student Greg Rael is the first student to work full time as a chemist for the university’s Research Park.
The Research Park includes two university enterprises: Highlands Stable Isotopes and ZeenKleen.
Highlands University chemists developed and patented a process called ZeenKleen,® the safest hydrazine abatement technology available today — neutralizing the highly toxic, flammable chemical to a non-hazardous organic compound.
Proceeds from ZeenKleen sales benefit higher education at Highlands for students like Rael.
The 27-year-old Taos, N.M. native earned his B.S. in chemistry from Highlands and will defend his M.S. thesis in applied chemistry later this month. His organic synthesis study employed carbon 13, the stable isotope of carbon.
Stable isotopes do not decay because of their particular combinations of neutrons and protons. Stable isotopes of carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, oxygen, and hydrogen are the ones most commonly used in environmental research.
Rael started working full time in the university’s Research Park lab in December 2013. He works on customer-driven research projects and also helps maintain the lab equipment and instruments. In addition, he conducts literature reviews of previous chemical synthesis studies.
“Being able to work with and synthesize new chemical compounds is both fascinating and very exciting,” Rael said. “I feel like my experience in this organic chemistry lab is second to none, and a rare opportunity to work alongside exceptional chemists like Dr. Rudy Martinez and David Glass. I’m constantly expanding my knowledge of applied chemistry. “
Rudy Martinez is a research chemist and director of the university’s Research Park. He oversees Highlands Stable Isotopes as well as ZeenKleen.
Martinez and former Highlands chemistry faculty member Merritt Helvenston developed KeenKleen. The U.S. patent for KeenKleen was issued in 2006, making it the first patent in the university’s history.
Martinez hired Rael to work for the Research Park and is also his thesis adviser.
“I would rank Greg as just as good — if not better — than students I’ve worked with from Harvard to MIT,” Martinez said. “He is incredibly bright and works incredibly hard. Greg has the potential to excel at whatever he pursues. He has chosen to work in the Research Park and we’re very grateful for that.”
While at Highlands, Rael worked as a chemistry tutor, math instructor, and undergraduate and graduate chemistry lab assistant.
Outside the classroom and lab, Rael distinguished himself as leader on campus. He served as a student regent on the university’s Board of Regents from 2009 — 2011 and also served as president of the university’s Student Senate in 2009.
Looking ahead, he plans to eventually earn a doctorate in organic chemistry.
“Dr. Martinez is an excellent and patient mentor who always puts his students first. He inspired me to pursue chemistry research,” Rael said.
Martinez also hired David Glass to work in the Research Park. Glass earned his M.S. in organic chemistry from Highlands in 2007 and Martinez was his thesis adviser. Glass is pursuing a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Central Florida while working full time at the Highlands Research Park.
Martinez said he hopes Rael will be able to pursue his Ph.D. in the same manner.
“We are developing isotopically labeled chemical compounds in the Research Park lab that are needed for biological, metabolic and environmental studies,” Glass said.
“David possesses the same kind of outstanding attributes as Greg, and they both have a strong desire to see the ZeenKleen technology generate revenue that will help Highlands University better serve its students,” Martinez said.
Hydrazine is widely used in industries such as power, pharmaceuticals and agriculture. It is also used as fuel for U.S. military aircraft like the F-16 fighter. NASA uses hydrazine for its spacecraft.
The university’s Research Park developed several ZeenKleen products for decontaminating hydrazine, including a solution, wipes and pads for neutralizing spills, and spray bottles.
Martinez said the university’s goal is for its environmentally friendly ZeenKleen technology to eventually change the emergency response protocol for hydrazine remediation.
“As more end users look at ZeenKleen for their remediation, additional products continue to emerge from the initial patent,” Martinez said.