Velegol and Sen receive NSF grant to develop Catalytic motors for high-salt environments

07/20/2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Darrell Velegol, Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering, and Ayusman Sen, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Penn State, have been awarded a $388,900 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop catalytic motors that can function in salty environments.

The proposal, titled “Active Matter Transport by Non-Electrolyte Diffusiophoresis,” aims to produce autonomous, micron-sized catalytic colloidal motors with the ability to transport cargo in high-salt environments including blood, seawater and geo-reservoirs. 

Results of the research may lead to advances in human health, sustainable energy and new information and technology systems.

“In this proposal, we are working to create ‘micron-sized robots’ that can transport matter independently,” said Velegol. “These robots have proved successful in a number of environments, but have not yet been effective in high-salt conditions. Our goal is to test various chemistries to exploit new, subtle forces of motion that will drive these robots in various physiological and geological environments.” 

The researchers plan to achieve the desired results by implementing non-electrolyte diffusiophoresis (NEDP), a technique that uses non-electrolyte concentration gradients to create change. 

“In previous work, we have used gradients of salt to create motion, but that is not a feasible solution in environments already rich in salt concentrations,” said Velegol. “In this work, we will investigate new differentials with the capacity to drive the motors.”

The idea of colloidal catalytic motors used to transport active matter was first conceived by Sen and Thomas Mallouk, Evan Pugh University Professor of Chemistry and head of Penn State’s Department of Chemistry, in the early 2000s. The motors’ ability to transport matter autonomously has made them attractive prospects for a number of applications which has led to an exponential increase in popularity within the fields of physics, chemistry and engineering over the past decade.

“Catalytic motors have a mind of their own,” explained Sen. “They harvest the fuel around them for energy and are able to move and respond to their surroundings which make them a very appealing energy solution.”

While Sen and collaborators in the Department of Chemistry have traditionally focused on the development of motors, Velegol was invited to collaborate on the project for his expertise in the area of electrokinetic fluid mechanics. The pair’s first collaborative paper was published in 2005.

For this research project, Velegol and Sen will continue their collaboration with additional support from graduate and undergraduate researchers at Penn State; student involvement from scholars in engineering, chemistry and physics serves as a cornerstone of the proposal. The researchers cite the student’s knowledge, enthusiasm and drive to form new research relationships as an essential component of the project. 

In addition to the work performed at University Park, highlights of the research will also be integrated into the Massive Open Online Course: Creativity Innovation and Change; a course developed and curated by Velegol and other faculty members at Penn State including Jack Matson, professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering and Kathryn Jablokow, associate professor in the school of engineering, design, technology and professional programs and mechanical and nuclear engineering, which is available through Coursera. 

“We want to educate as many people as we can on this topic,” said Velegol. “In fact, we would love to get people from across the world talking about it. Our hope is that it may lead to new ideas and technological applications.” 

The NSF grant, issued in June 2016, supports a three-year research term.

Ultimately, the researchers hope their work will one day lead to advances in targeted drug delivery, enhanced energy recovery and new developments in information systems.
 

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MEDIA CONTACT:

Mindy Krause

muk45@psu.edu

Darrell Velegol

Darrell Velegol, Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering

Ayusman Sen

Ayusman Sen, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry 

"We are working to create ‘micron-sized robots’ that can transport matter independently. These robots have proved successful in a number of environments, but have not yet been effective in high-salt conditions. Our goal is to test various chemistries to exploit new, subtle forces of motion that will drive these robots in various physiological and geological environments."

 
 

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