NSF-funded research aims to scale up inorganic nanoparticle production
Nanoparticles have unique optical, magnetic, electronic and catalytic properties that could lead to advances in computing, energy storage, chemical manufacturing and health care. Key for national security and global competitiveness, these materials have a potential market of more than $1 billion per year, but the small-batch manufacturing processes currently used limit their supply and affect quality.
Engineers at The Ohio State University received a three-year, $733,504 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop new scalable processes for manufacturing inorganic nanoparticles, such as metals, semiconductors and ceramics.
“We're focusing on methods to make nanoparticles in continuous synthesis. You can think of this as basically, the difference between making things in a batch—which is what you do in your kitchen where you make one batch of brownies at a time—versus a Ford assembly line where you're making things continuously,” explained Principal Investigator Jessica Winter, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. “We're trying to switch these methods that have been historically batch to a continuous scheme, which makes them not only more efficient, but you get better quality materials as well.”
While there have been advances in continuous manufacturing of polymer nanoparticles, including previous work by Winter and colleagues, inorganic nanoparticles are more difficult to manufacture because they often require high temperatures and low-oxygen environments.
“New properties of these materials are constantly being discovered. Fundamentally, the limitation is trying to get these new technologies beyond the lab scale,” said Co-Principal Investigator Nick Brunelli, the H.C. 'Slip' Slider associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. “When you try to make these things at a reasonable scale to implement it in any type of industrial process, the issue of non-uniformity becomes very apparent and you lose all the advantage gained by going to the nanoscale.”
The teams’ approach involves manufacturing inorganic nanoparticles in air-free and/or high-temperature jet-mixing reactors that are the size of a one-inch cube. Their miniscule size allows multiple reactors to run simultaneously in a small area, which could enable the nanoparticles to be manufactured on-site, rather than in a massive chemical plant.
Brunelli leads the reactor design and catalyst nanoparticle production, while Winter leads the inorganic biomedical nanoparticle research. Co-Principal Investigator Barbara Wyslouzil, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, is applying her expertise in nucleation and growth kinetics to help the team understand what's happening inside the reactor.
The research will focus on developing a scalable nanomanufacturing process for catalyst and semiconductor quantum dots as model systems. The engineers are targeting applications, such as health care, where the quality and uniformity of the nanoparticles is critical.
“If you're designing a nanoparticle for drug delivery, for example, you can't have the size varying quite a bit, because it changes how well that particle is able to diffuse to the target,” Winter said. “If it's too small, it might not be able to get where it needs to go. If it's too big, it can't pass the blood vessel. You need it to be the same every time.”
Additional research collaborators include Biomolecular and Chemical Engineering Professor Andre Palmer and Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor Anne Co.
The project will also help train graduate and undergraduate student researchers for emerging careers in scalable nanomanufacturing. Entrepreneurship and commercialization education will be provided by Core Quantum Technologies, an Ohio State spin-out company founded by Winter, and Rev1 Ventures.
Brunelli and his colleagues are excited about the opportunity to involve students in research with such high potential impact.
“This is a real engineering project,” he said. “While it's built upon basic science discoveries, it's really about engineering ways to get those discoveries beyond the walls of the universities and out in the real world.”
by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, firstname.lastname@example.org