Beyond Better Cosmetics and Tennis Rackets
College of Sciences on track to develop programs involving nanotechnology
A UTSA physics professor is overseeing a number of research projects involving nanotechnology that are in line with the university’s 21st century vision of becoming a Tier One institution.
“My challenge in particular is to develop new techniques and materials that can be used for many applications,” says Miguel Yacaman, Ph.D., physics professor and Chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy. “We are trying, among other things, to apply physics technology to the development of materials to use for health.”
According to the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration Web site, nanotechnology involves the manipulation and control of matter at dimensions of roughly 1 to 100 nanometers.
The development of unique nanoscale structures has the potential to revolutionize industries, including electronics, medicine and consumer products. Examples of materials developed with nanotechnology include carbon buckeyballs, or fullerenes; carbon nanotubes, and metal oxide nanoparticles and quantum dots, which are nanoscale semiconductor materials.
Examples of products that are currently produced using nanotechnologies include sunscreens and cosmetics; longer-lasting tennis balls and lightweight, stronger tennis rackets; stain-free clothing and mattresses, and protective and glare-reducing coatings for eyeglasses and cars, among other materials.
Important Collaborations with Other Institutions
Yacaman, meanwhile, is working with about 10 graduate students on projects in collaboration with various institutions, ranging from the National Institutes of Health to Centro de Materiales Avanzados to the Welch Foundation and the National Science Foundation.
In the first collaboration, the College of Sciences is working with Centro de Materiales Avanzados on a project titled “International Center for Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials.”
ICNAM is an institution dedicated to promoting partnerships, networking and interactions between scientists of The University of Texas System and preeminent education and research institutions of Latin America. The goal is to produce world-class research and develop technologies based on materials science that will launch new high-tech industries. The institute also provides an opportunity for scientists to use research equipment at UTSA and Latin American institutions.
“This is an international collaboration with Mexico,” Yacaman says, adding that the project is funded by a $100,000 grant from The University of Texas at Austin and CONACIT. “We get $60,000 for Mexican students to come here and for U.S. students to go to Mexico to build collaborations. More than 100 researchers have been involved with this.”
Considering that Mexico is a neighbor and close partner of the United States, building scientific links is important because those links can lead to commercial enterprises. In addition, interaction with Mexico is important for U.S. Hispanic students because it affords them the opportunity to explore their roots in Mexico.
The collaboration with Mexico was established 10 years ago and involves more than 20 Mexican universities doing research in a number of scientific areas, he says.
Another important collaboration involves the Welch Foundation with the project “Controlling the Shape of Particles Using Wet Chemistry Methods: The Case of Bimetallic Nanoparticles,” which the foundation is funding for $100,000 per year.
Working on Fuel Cell Technology
The goal of the project is to solve problems related to fuel cells, one of the most important techniques for creating new alternative energy.
“In fuel cells you take hydrogen and methane, and you convert it into energy and water. It’s very clean energy. That technique is not new, but the problem is that you need a catalyst, and the catalyst needs platinum, and platinum is very expensive.”
Another goal of the project is to reduce the amount of platinum needed to make it commercially feasible. Student researchers will test the hypothesis that only a monolayer of platinum is needed and that the amount of platinum can be greatly reduced by utilizing that monolayer.
However, the problem, Dr. Yacaman explains, is that currently there is not enough platinum in the world.
“If you put present technology in all the cars in the U.S., it will exhaust the platinum supply in the world. But it will be very clean because you are producing water out of gas!”
The contributions to mankind, of course, would be enormous.
“Imagine if this problem is solved. The moment cars are using fuel cells, you will not have greenhouse gas emissions, and you create new jobs.”
A third collaboration exists with the National Science Foundation titled “Oxide and Metal Nanoparticles—The Interface between Life Sciences and Physical Sciences,” supported by NSF-PREM, which is a collective effort of the physics and astronomy department at UTSA under the direction of Professor D. Sardar. “This is a very significant project in collaboration with Northwestern University and is a program that will produce Ph.D.s in materials science,” Yacaman says.
“Everyone believes this is the century that Physics will impact Biology. During the last century, people understood atoms and molecules. And Physics and Chemistry became interconnected. Now we believe it’s time to understand Biology at the atomic and molecular level using Quantum Physics.”
One of the goals of this project is to understand how new particles of metals can affect science and how they can kill disease and impact new drugs.
The College of Sciences’ research falls under the research cluster of Energy and Environment, in which UTSA scientists are actively researching methods to improve existing energy systems and develop new energy sources based on wind and solar power. Thus, UTSA faculty scientists are using nanoscale materials to improve the efficiency of solar power cells, while others are creating biofuels from algae.