Julia Ortony: Concocting nanomaterials for energy and environmental applications

A molecular professional, Julia Ortony performs a modern form of alchemy.

“I take dust contains disorganized, little molecules, and after blending it up with liquid, the materials in answer zips itself up into threads 5 nanometers thick — about 100 times smaller compared to the wavelength of visible light,” claims Ortony, the Finmeccanica Career developing Assistant Professor of Engineering inside division of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE). “Every time we make one of these brilliant nanofibers, i’m astonished to view it.”

But also for Ortony, the fascination doesn’t merely concern the way in which these novel frameworks self-assemble, a product of this interacting with each other between a powder’s molecular geometry and liquid. She’s plumbing the possibility of these nanomaterials for use in green power and environmental remediation technologies, including promising brand new methods to water purification and the photocatalytic production of fuel.

Tuning molecular properties

Ortony’s present research agenda appeared from the ten years of work into the behavior of a class of carbon-based molecular products that will start around fluid to solid.

During doctoral work on the University of Ca at Santa Barbara, she used magnetized resonance (MR) spectroscopy to help make spatially accurate measurements of atomic motion within particles, and of the interactions between particles. At Northwestern University, where she was a postdoc, Ortony focused this device on self-assembling nanomaterials which were biologically based, in research aimed at possible biomedical applications like mobile scaffolding and regenerative medicine.

“With MR spectroscopy, I investigated just how atoms move and jiggle in a assembled nanostructure,” she states. Her study disclosed that the area of the nanofiber acted such as a viscous fluid, but together probed additional inwards, it behaved such as for instance a solid. Through molecular design, it became feasible to tune the speed of which molecules that make up a nanofiber move.

A home had opened for Ortony. “We can now use state-of-matter as knob to tune nanofiber properties,” she says. “For initially, we are able to design self-assembling nanostructures, using sluggish or quickly internal molecular characteristics to determine their particular crucial actions.”

Slowing down the party

When she attained MIT in 2015, Ortony ended up being determined to tame and train particles for nonbiological applications of self-assembling “soft” products.

“Self-assembling molecules are usually really powerful, in which they dance around each other, jiggling all the time and coming and going from their system,” she explains. “But we realized that when particles stick strongly to each other, their particular characteristics get slow, and their particular behavior is very tunable.” The process, though, would be to synthesize nanostructures in nonbiological particles that could attain these strong interactions.

“My theory coming to MIT ended up being that if we’re able to tune the characteristics of small particles in liquid and extremely slow all of them straight down, you should be able to make self-assembled nanofibers that behave like a solid and are also viable outside water,” claims Ortony.

Her efforts to comprehend and manage these types of materials are now actually needs to pay off.

“We’ve created unique, molecular nanostructures that self-assemble, tend to be steady both in liquid and atmosphere, and — since they’re so tiny — have very high surface places,” she states. Since the nanostructure area is when chemical interactions along with other substances happen, Ortony has leapt to exploit this particular aspect of the woman creations — concentrating particularly on their prospective in ecological and power programs.

Clean water and gasoline from sunlight

One crucial venture, supported by Ortony’s Professor Amar G. Bose Fellowship, involves liquid purification. The situation of toxin-laden drinking tap water affects tens of huge numbers of people in underdeveloped countries. Ortony’s research team is establishing nanofibers that can grab dangerous metals eg arsenic out-of such water. The substance groups she attaches to nanofibers tend to be powerful, steady in atmosphere, as well as in current tests “remove all arsenic right down to low, nearly invisible levels,” says Ortony.

She believes a cheap textile created from nanofibers will probably be welcome replacement for the large, expensive filtration currently implemented in locations like Bangladesh, in which arsenic-tainted liquid poses serious threats to large populations.

“Moving forward, we would like to chelate arsenic, lead, or any environmental contaminant from liquid employing a solid textile material produced from these materials,” she states.

In another analysis thrust, Ortony says, “My dream would be to make chemical fuels from solar power.” Her lab is designing nanostructures with molecules that become antennas for sunlight. These structures, exposed to and stimulated by light, communicate with a catalyst in liquid to cut back skin tightening and to different gases that might be captured for usage as gasoline.

In current studies, the Ortony lab discovered that you can design these catalytic nanostructure systems becoming steady in liquid under ultraviolet irradiation for long intervals. “We tuned our nanomaterial such that it failed to digest, which is needed for a photocatalytic system,” claims Ortony.

Pupils dive in

While Ortony’s technologies will always be within the very first phases, her way of dilemmas of power in addition to environment are usually drawing student lovers.

Dae-Yoon Kim, a postdoc within the Ortony lab, won the 2018 Glenn H. Brown reward through the Overseas fluid amazingly community for his focus on synthesized photo-responsive products and began a tenure track position within Korea Institute of Science and Technology this fall. Ortony additionally mentors Ty Christoff-Tempesta, a DMSE doctoral applicant, who had been recently granted a Martin Fellowship for Sustainability. Christoff-Tempesta hopes to design nanoscale fibers that assemble and disassemble in liquid to create environmentally renewable products. And Cynthia Lo ’18 claimed a best-senior-thesis award for make use of Ortony on nanostructures that connect to light and self-assemble in liquid, work that’ll quickly be posted. She’s “my superstar MIT Energy Initiative UROP [undergraduate researcher],” says Ortony.

Ortony hopes to generally share the woman feeling of question about materials technology not merely with pupils in her group, but also with those who work in the woman classes. “When I had been an undergraduate, I became amazed at the absolute power to make a molecule and verify its structure,” she states. Along with her brand new lab-based training course for grad pupils — 3.65 (smooth thing Characterization) — Ortony claims she will instruct about “all the passions that drive my research.”

While she’s passionate about making use of the woman discoveries to fix critical problems, she continues to be entranced because of the beauty she locates following chemistry. Fascinated with research beginning in childhood, Ortony claims she searched for every offered course in biochemistry, “learning anything from beginning to end, and finding that we liked organic and physical chemistry, and molecules overall.”

These days, she states, she finds delight working with the lady “creative, resourceful, and inspired” pupils. She celebrates together “when experiments confirm hypotheses, and it also’s a breakthrough plus it’s thrilling,” and reassures all of them “when they come through a problem, and I can let them know it is thrilling soon.”

This article seems within the Autumn 2019 issue of Energy Futures, the mag regarding the MIT Energy Initiative.