February 20, 2014 By: Colin Poitras
A team of UConn chemists has discovered a new way of making a class of porous materials that allows for greater manufacturing controls and has significantly broader applications than the longtime industry standard.
The process, more than three years in the making and outlined in the December 2013 edition of Nature Communications, has resulted in the creation of more than 60 new families of materials so far, with the potential for many more. The key catalyst in the process is recyclable, making it a ‘green’ technology.
Four patent applications related to the discovery are pending. VeruTEK, a chemical innovations company based in South Windsor, Conn., has secured rights to some of the materials.
“This is definitely the most exciting project I’ve been involved in over the past 30 years,” says Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor Steven L. Suib, the project’s principal investigator. “What we’ve done is similar to discovering a new insect, only now there is a series of families of these things that can be discovered. That’s pretty cool.”
The research is the first major work to come out of the University’s new GEMS Center of Excellence. The center, which gets its name from the acronym Green Emulsions, Micelles and Surfactants, is located in the Department of Chemistry in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Suib’s research involves the creation of uniform, or monomodal, mesoporous metal oxides using transition metals such as manganese, cobalt, and iron. Mesoporous describes the size of the pores in the material. In this case, they are between 2 and 50 nanometers in diameter and are evenly distributed across the material’s surface, similar to what one might see if a pin is used to poke numerous holes in a material. Only the UConn process allows scientists to use nitric oxide chemistry to change the diameter of the “pin,” in order to change the size of the holes. This unique approach helps contain chemical reactions and provides unprecedented control and flexibility.
“Professor Suib and his colleagues report an unexpected and novel route to generation of mesoporous metal oxides,” says Prabir Dutta, distinguished university professor of chemistry and biochemistry at The Ohio State University. “Professor Suib’s discovery and the extension of mesoporosity to a much broader range of metal oxides is bound to push this area to new heights, with all sorts of potential applications, making this study a most important development in materials science.”
Having materials with uniform microscopic pores allows targeted molecules of a particular size to flow into and out of the material, which is important in such applications as adsorption, sensors, optics, magnetic, and energy products such as the catalysts found in fuel cells.
“When people think about these materials, they think about lock-and-key systems,” says Suib. “With certain enzymes, you have to have pores of a certain size and shape. With this process, you can now make a receptacle for specific proteins or enzymes so that they can enter the pores and specifically bind and react. That’s the hope, to be able to make a pore that will allow such materials to fit, to be able to make a pore that a scientist needs.”
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