A splash of detergent makes catalytic compounds more powerful
Photo courtesy of Hongyou Fan
“I’ve never seen anything like this. At this scale, nobody can control the shape or the size that well. This technology does both.”
The uniform powder and others like it produced at Sandia National Laboratories don’t just look nice, they outperform commercial varieties used to kick-start chemical reactions in solar cells and could be used to produce clean-burning hydrogen fuel. If developed for industry, the new technology could improve performance while reducing costs of these and other catalysts used everywhere from environmental cleanup to cancer treatment.
Its key ingredient: detergent.
In fact, it’s a commercial-grade version not unlike household dish soap, minus the dyes and perfumes. Fan, the inventor of the detergent-based technology, and his team at the shared Advanced Materials Laboratory at the University of New Mexico use the active ingredient in cleaning solutions to trap raw materials just like grease, encapsulating them inside cages made up of detergent molecules. The cage acts as a molecular mold that dictates the size and shape — or morphology — of the material that forms inside. Remove the detergent, and you’re left with clean, uniform particles.
“Normally, you would have very little control over the reaction that produces these materials,” says Fan. “This leads to irregular morphology.”
That can be a problem for the engineers who use those materials. Some catalysts don’t work unless they’re arranged in specific ways at the molecular level, and some light-absorbing particles used in solar cells soak up more sunlight at certain sizes than others. When individual particles are irregular, only a fraction of the bulk material performs the way it’s meant to. The rest is dead weight, which also makes it tough to predict the catalyst’s performance.
Because Fan’s particles are uniform and tightly controlled, engineers could use less material and get the same effect as conventional powders. In one study, Fan’s version of a photocatalyst, which could be used to clean wastewater, broke down five times more pollutant than its commercial counterpart. In his latest paper, he demonstrated similar improvements in a material that catalytically produces hydrogen.
Consistency improves performance predictions
Rosenberg is scaling up and applying the technology to his explosives research for national security, where unpredictable materials are unacceptable. Alongside a team that’s improving the inputs to computer models, “we saw an incredible, powerful application as it feeds into our modeling efforts,” he says.
Sandia develops computer simulations so that Rosenberg and his team don’t have to physically build and test parts every time. But assumptions that get put into those models can compromise the output.
To save computing resources and time, a simulation may assume particles have simpler shapes or are more consistent than they really are. But, it will never perfectly predict how the real material acts. Fan’s uniform powders align the material with the model, providing Rosenberg the ability to control the particles’ structure so that many of the mathematical assumptions go away.
“We could look at models that perfectly describe the physical characteristics of the powder, and that would give us an incredible tool both for validating existing models and for developing new ones.”
Change the detergent, change the shape
Fan also is optimizing materials for potential applications like energy conversion in solar cells, phototherapy for cancer treatment and hydrogen production for clean fuel sources by creating well-known particles in brand new shapes. One detergent may result in spheres, but Fan can swap it out for a detergent that produces discs, rods or octahedrons. In the study that measured photocatalytic performance, he tested eight shapes against the commercial counterpart before crowning the most effective form.
But so far, Fan has largely discovered these shapes through trial and error. So he’s enlisted the aid of Younan Xia, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a pioneer in nanomaterial synthesis to accelerate his work.
“We are measuring fundamental kinetics, how fast atoms or molecules are deposited on the surface of growing nanoparticles,” Xia says. “The final structure of particles depends on that rate relative to the surface diffusion rate,” or the rate at which molecules drift away.
Xia and Fan are working together to develop a recipe to replicate certain shapes based on the detergent, temperature, pH value and concentration. Like turning knobs, they could adjust these inputs to get a reliable output.
“If you don’t have a quantitative knob, you might perform the experiment one hundred times before you get the right shape,” Xia says. “With one, we hope we can get it right after the first or second try.”
Georgia Tech is a member of Sandia’s academic alliance. The alliance aims to solve the nation’s significant technical problems, develop the next-generation of scientists and engineers and accelerate the adoption of new technologies.
Other news from the department science
Blue-green algae sugar instead of glyphosate
Cooperation project develops environmentally friendly glyphosate alternative
Using clay to combat eternal toxins
TU Freiberg clarifies basis for innovative PFAS filter made of clay
Unveiling a new era of imaging: Boston University engineers lead breakthrough microscopy techniques
Researchers made significant advancements in the field of vibrational imaging
Phasing out fossil fuels could save millions of lives
The mortality burden attributable to air pollution from fossil fuel use is considerably higher than most previous estimates - a phaseout of fossil fuels would have tremendous, positive health outcomes
Replicating the structure of bird feathers
The new material could be used in batteries or filtration
Quantum tool opens door to uncharted phenomena
Method can contribute to a better understanding of quantum materials
Recovering instead of shredding: recycling batteries more efficiently
KIT researchers are working with industry to develop a more sustainable recycling process to recycle materials from lithium-ion batteries more effectively
Industry 4.0: No impact on energy consumption?
To what extent does the digitalisation of industrial and manufacturing processes (Industry 4.0) improve energy efficiency and thus reduce energy intensity?
New approach to the sensible utilisation of carbon dioxide from car exhaust gases
"A method has been discovered that uses impure CO2 streams and enables a breakthrough in the synthesis of valuable chemicals and pharmaceuticals"
Boosting PET recycling with higher standards for laboratory experiments
New study shows how enzymatic plastic degradation could be brought one step closer to commercialisation
Innovating Optoelectronic Components with Phosphorus
Significant breakthrough: phosphorus chemists develop new method to selectively introduce phosphorus and nitrogen atoms into polyaromatic systems
Artificial intelligence finds ways to develop new drugs
The chemists tested the process using borylation – a reaction that activates hydrocarbon scaffolds
X-rays reveal how glasses lose their stability
PETRA III experiment shows how atoms in glass behave as weaknesses appear
Most read news
Plastic-eating bacteria turn waste into useful starting materials for other products
Microbial Upcycling of Waste PET
Microbes could help reduce the need for chemical fertilizers
A coating protects nitrogen-fixing bacteria: Start-up to commercialise coated bacteria for large-scale use in regenerative agriculture
New designs for solid-state electrolytes may soon revolutionize the battery industry
Scientists achieve monumental improvements in lithium-metal-chloride solid-state electrolytes
Dow and Evonik announce startup of hydrogen peroxide to propylene glycol (HPPG) pilot plant
Innovative technology offer flexibility, lower costs, and a smaller environmental footprint
Inauguration of the world’s first pilot plant for the cost-efficient production of green methanol
Start-up C1 Green Chemicals AG and research partners develop fundamentally new production process
This is a battery
Two colored liquids bubbling through tubes: Is this what the battery of the future looks like?
Converting PFAS “forever chemicals” into valuable compounds
Scientists develop a new method to incorporate harmful perfluoroalkenes into N-heterocyclic carbene ligands
Not so silver lining: Microplastics found in clouds could affect the weather
Low-altitude and denser clouds contained greater amounts of microplastics
Graphene's proton permeability: A switch for future energy technologies
This discovery could lead to the development of more efficient hydrogen fuel cells and solar water-splitting devices
Lithium-ion batteries are no longer the gold standard in battery tech
On the way to safer and more powerful energy sources
CO2-free hydrogen: BASF receives funding approval for 54-megawatt water electrolysis plant
Proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolyzer expected to produce up to 8,000 metric tons of hydrogen per year
More news from our other portals
Bowel cancer: aspirin activates protective genes
Researchers have identified a signaling pathway by which aspirin can inhibit colorectal cancer.
Dunning-Kruger effect with muesli bars
Those who know the least consider themselves highly competent
Autonomous measuring instruments systematically detect new materials
A new algorithm measures materials libraries up to four times faster than before: It’s based on machine learning
New drug delivery system could reduce daily diabetes shots to just three a year
Dietary management drugs have transformed Type 2 diabetes care, but daily injection routines are challenging for some patients
Naked Clams: The New Superfood Sensation Emerging from the Depths
Researchers found Naked Clams contain almost twice the amount of Vitamin B12 as blue mussels and have developed an efficient way to farm them
Researchers discover new ultra strong material for microchip sensors
A material that doesn't just rival the strength of diamonds and graphene, but boasts a yield strength 10 times greater than Kevlar
Pushers, overcrowded trains and phone zombies
Sprite presents the world's first vending machine that responds to the things that bother Generation Z the most
Aston University technology to combat the not-so sweet practice of honey fraud
Light technology to be used to detect if honey is blended with cheap additions
How stem cells and immune cells communicate
Lisec Artz Award for Simon Haas: Groundbreaking discovery of an unknown protective mechanism against blood cancer from stem cells
Scientists use quantum biology, AI to sharpen genome editing tool
"This study represents an exciting advancement toward, understanding how we can avoid making costly ‘typos’ in an organism’s genetic code"
From the trough to the plate - digitally calculated
Computer program "ConTrans" estimates how much of an undesirable substance is transferred from animal feed to food
Viral Impostors: Breakthrough for Virus Research
The penetration of viruses into cells can now be tracked with unprecedented accuracy thanks to innovative design for pseudoviruses
Fatty acid factory filmed at work
High-resolution images provide new insights into cellular fatty acid production: Potential for medicine and biotechnology
Textbook knowledge turned on its head: 3-in-1 microorganism discovered
Newly multifunctional bacterial species
Tönnies Group launches first nationwide "Meat Climate Platform"
100 guests at the Future Forum for Agriculture
Tracking down Environmental Toxins
Detection of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) by interrupted energy transfer
Could eating turkey ease colitis?
According to data in mice, extra tryptophan could reduce the risk of future colitis flares
The weight of pollution: exposure linked to obesity
Chronic exposure to environmental pollutants found to increase risk of cardiovascular disease
Are healthy foods automatically sustainable, too?
Perceptions about sustainability and healthy food choices are closely linked