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NSF Funds Nanoheater Study

Researchers Look at Industrial Safety

Julie Chen

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While the potential explosion hazards of micron- and submicron-size particles in coal mines, in the food and pharmaceutical industries and in powder-processing facilities are well known, safety guidelines do not exist for dealing with nano- (billionth-of-a-meter-) size particles. Two UMass Lowell engineering professors are currently tackling this issue as part of an international research collaboration.

Prof. Julie Chen of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Prof. Zhiyong Gu of the Department of Chemical Engineering hope to better understand and mitigate the risk of accidental fire or explosion during the processing, handling and transportation of nanoscale particles, wires, fibers and films. Their co-researchers include Teiichi Ando of Northeastern University, Peter Wong of Tufts University and Haris Doumanidis and Claus Rebholz of the University of Cyprus. The U.S. group’s research project recently received a $589,775 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Specifically, their study will focus on “nanoheaters,” composite structures of exothermically reactive (heat-giving) materials arranged in various geometries that provide heat in a controlled manner.

“We see potential applications of nanoheaters in processing, actuation and biomedical fields,” says Chen. “For example, as devices get smaller and involve mixtures of materials, say, metals with biological agents such as DNA or ceramics with polymers, you can’t just throw the whole thing in a furnace or oven to make it or use it. Not only is this time-consuming and energy-inefficient ߝ heating up the whole product and then cooling it down ߝ the process can also destroy the lower-temperature materials, that is the biological or polymer component. For actuation and biomedical applications, the key is to provide a rapid, localized triggering mechanism.”

She adds: “Nanoheaters are a new concept developed and patented by our collaborative group. The U.S. federal government is very interested in ensuring that the appropriate environmental, health and industrial safety issues are being studied in parallel with all the new developments in nanotechnology.”

Chen, Gu and their colleagues are trying to understand how to design and fabricate these nanoheaters so they have precise control over the nanoheaters’ initiation and the rate and total amount of heat released.

“Our goal is to understand the initiation process and to design safety features, such as separation barriers, to prevent any undesired initiation of the nanoheaters while in storage,” says Gu. “Our research should also give us general insight into potential industrial safety issues for other nanosize materials.”

Zhiyong Gu