Tag Archives: Rohit Karnik

Sealing graphene’s defects to make a better filtration device

Making a graphene filter that allows water to pass through while screening out salt and/or noxious materials has been more challenging than one might think. According to a May 7, 2015 news item on Nanowerk, graphene filters can be ‘leaky’,

For faster, longer-lasting water filters, some scientists are looking to graphene –thin, strong sheets of carbon — to serve as ultrathin membranes, filtering out contaminants to quickly purify high volumes of water.

Graphene’s unique properties make it a potentially ideal membrane for water filtration or desalination. But there’s been one main drawback to its wider use: Making membranes in one-atom-thick layers of graphene is a meticulous process that can tear the thin material — creating defects through which contaminants can leak.

Now engineers at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) have devised a process to repair these leaks, filling cracks and plugging holes using a combination of chemical deposition and polymerization techniques. The team then used a process it developed previously to create tiny, uniform pores in the material, small enough to allow only water to pass through.

A May 8, 2015 MIT news release (also on EurkeAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Combining these two techniques, the researchers were able to engineer a relatively large defect-free graphene membrane — about the size of a penny. The membrane’s size is significant: To be exploited as a filtration membrane, graphene would have to be manufactured at a scale of centimeters, or larger.

In experiments, the researchers pumped water through a graphene membrane treated with both defect-sealing and pore-producing processes, and found that water flowed through at rates comparable to current desalination membranes. The graphene was able to filter out most large-molecule contaminants, such as magnesium sulfate and dextran.

Rohit Karnik, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, says the group’s results, published in the journal Nano Letters, represent the first success in plugging graphene’s leaks.

“We’ve been able to seal defects, at least on the lab scale, to realize molecular filtration across a macroscopic area of graphene, which has not been possible before,” Karnik says. “If we have better process control, maybe in the future we don’t even need defect sealing. But I think it’s very unlikely that we’ll ever have perfect graphene — there will always be some need to control leakages. These two [techniques] are examples which enable filtration.”

Sean O’Hern, a former graduate research assistant at MIT, is the paper’s first author. Other contributors include MIT graduate student Doojoon Jang, former graduate student Suman Bose, and Professor Jing Kong.

A delicate transfer

“The current types of membranes that can produce freshwater from saltwater are fairly thick, on the order of 200 nanometers,” O’Hern says. “The benefit of a graphene membrane is, instead of being hundreds of nanometers thick, we’re on the order of three angstroms — 600 times thinner than existing membranes. This enables you to have a higher flow rate over the same area.”

O’Hern and Karnik have been investigating graphene’s potential as a filtration membrane for the past several years. In 2009, the group began fabricating membranes from graphene grown on copper — a metal that supports the growth of graphene across relatively large areas. However, copper is impermeable, requiring the group to transfer the graphene to a porous substrate following fabrication.

However, O’Hern noticed that this transfer process would create tears in graphene. What’s more, he observed intrinsic defects created during the growth process, resulting perhaps from impurities in the original material.

Plugging graphene’s leaks

To plug graphene’s leaks, the team came up with a technique to first tackle the smaller intrinsic defects, then the larger transfer-induced defects. For the intrinsic defects, the researchers used a process called “atomic layer deposition,” placing the graphene membrane in a vacuum chamber, then pulsing in a hafnium-containing chemical that does not normally interact with graphene. However, if the chemical comes in contact with a small opening in graphene, it will tend to stick to that opening, attracted by the area’s higher surface energy.

The team applied several rounds of atomic layer deposition, finding that the deposited hafnium oxide successfully filled in graphene’s nanometer-scale intrinsic defects. However, O’Hern realized that using the same process to fill in much larger holes and tears — on the order of hundreds of nanometers — would require too much time.

Instead, he and his colleagues came up with a second technique to fill in larger defects, using a process called “interfacial polymerization” that is often employed in membrane synthesis. After they filled in graphene’s intrinsic defects, the researchers submerged the membrane at the interface of two solutions: a water bath and an organic solvent that, like oil, does not mix with water.

In the two solutions, the researchers dissolved two different molecules that can react to form nylon. Once O’Hern placed the graphene membrane at the interface of the two solutions, he observed that nylon plugs formed only in tears and holes — regions where the two molecules could come in contact because of tears in the otherwise impermeable graphene — effectively sealing the remaining defects.

Using a technique they developed last year, the researchers then etched tiny, uniform holes in graphene — small enough to let water molecules through, but not larger contaminants. In experiments, the group tested the membrane with water containing several different molecules, including salt, and found that the membrane rejected up to 90 percent of larger molecules. However, it let salt through at a faster rate than water.

The preliminary tests suggest that graphene may be a viable alternative to existing filtration membranes, although Karnik says techniques to seal its defects and control its permeability will need further improvements.

“Water desalination and nanofiltration are big applications where, if things work out and this technology withstands the different demands of real-world tests, it would have a large impact,” Karnik says. “But one could also imagine applications for fine chemical- or biological-sample processing, where these membranes could be useful. And this is the first report of a centimeter-scale graphene membrane that does any kind of molecular filtration. That’s exciting.”

De-en Jiang, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of California at Riverside, sees the defect-sealing technique as “a great advance toward making graphene filtration a reality.”

“The two-step technique is very smart: sealing the defects while preserving the desired pores for filtration,” says Jiang, who did not contribute to the research. “This would make the scale-up much easier. One can produce a large graphene membrane first, not worrying about the defects, which can be sealed later.”

I have featured graphene and water desalination work before  from these researchers at MIT in a Feb. 27, 2014 posting. Interestingly, there was no mention of problems with defects in the news release highlighting this previous work.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the latest paper,

Nanofiltration across Defect-Sealed Nanoporous Monolayer Graphene by Sean C. O’Hern, Doojoon Jang, Suman Bose, Juan-Carlos Idrobo, Yi Song §, Tahar Laoui, Jing Kong, and Rohit Karnik. Nano Lett., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.5b00456 Publication Date (Web): April 27, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Water desalination by graphene and water purification by sapwood

I have two items about water. The first concerns a new technique from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) for desalination using graphene and sapwood, respectively*. From a Feb. 25, 2014 news release by David Chandler on EurekAlert,

Researchers have devised a way of making tiny holes of controllable size in sheets of graphene, a development that could lead to ultrathin filters for improved desalination or water purification.

The team of researchers at MIT, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and in Saudi Arabia succeeded in creating subnanoscale pores in a sheet of the one-atom-thick material, which is one of the strongest materials known. …

The concept of using graphene, perforated by nanoscale pores, as a filter in desalination has been proposed and analyzed by other MIT researchers. The new work, led by graduate student Sean O’Hern and associate professor of mechanical engineering Rohit Karnik, is the first step toward actual production of such a graphene filter.

Making these minuscule holes in graphene — a hexagonal array of carbon atoms, like atomic-scale chicken wire — occurs in a two-stage process. First, the graphene is bombarded with gallium ions, which disrupt the carbon bonds. Then, the graphene is etched with an oxidizing solution that reacts strongly with the disrupted bonds — producing a hole at each spot where the gallium ions struck. By controlling how long the graphene sheet is left in the oxidizing solution, the MIT researchers can control the average size of the pores.

A big limitation in existing nanofiltration and reverse-osmosis desalination plants, which use filters to separate salt from seawater, is their low permeability: Water flows very slowly through them. The graphene filters, being much thinner, yet very strong, can sustain a much higher flow. “We’ve developed the first membrane that consists of a high density of subnanometer-scale pores in an atomically thin, single sheet of graphene,” O’Hern says.

For efficient desalination, a membrane must demonstrate “a high rejection rate of salt, yet a high flow rate of water,” he adds. One way of doing that is decreasing the membrane’s thickness, but this quickly renders conventional polymer-based membranes too weak to sustain the water pressure, or too ineffective at rejecting salt, he explains.

With graphene membranes, it becomes simply a matter of controlling the size of the pores, making them “larger than water molecules, but smaller than everything else,” O’Hern says — whether salt, impurities, or particular kinds of biochemical molecules.

The permeability of such graphene filters, according to computer simulations, could be 50 times greater than that of conventional membranes, as demonstrated earlier by a team of MIT researchers led by graduate student David Cohen-Tanugi of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. But producing such filters with controlled pore sizes has remained a challenge. The new work, O’Hern says, demonstrates a method for actually producing such material with dense concentrations of nanometer-scale holes over large areas.

“We bombard the graphene with gallium ions at high energy,” O’Hern says. “That creates defects in the graphene structure, and these defects are more chemically reactive.” When the material is bathed in a reactive oxidant solution, the oxidant “preferentially attacks the defects,” and etches away many holes of roughly similar size. O’Hern and his co-authors were able to produce a membrane with 5 trillion pores per square centimeter, well suited to use for filtration. “To better understand how small and dense these graphene pores are, if our graphene membrane were to be magnified about a million times, the pores would be less than 1 millimeter in size, spaced about 4 millimeters apart, and span over 38 square miles, an area roughly half the size of Boston,” O’Hern says.

With this technique, the researchers were able to control the filtration properties of a single, centimeter-sized sheet of graphene: Without etching, no salt flowed through the defects formed by gallium ions. With just a little etching, the membranes started allowing positive salt ions to flow through. With further etching, the membranes allowed both positive and negative salt ions to flow through, but blocked the flow of larger organic molecules. With even more etching, the pores were large enough to allow everything to go through.

Scaling up the process to produce useful sheets of the permeable graphene, while maintaining control over the pore sizes, will require further research, O’Hern says.

Karnik says that such membranes, depending on their pore size, could find various applications. Desalination and nanofiltration may be the most demanding, since the membranes required for these plants would be very large. But for other purposes, such as selective filtration of molecules — for example, removal of unreacted reagents from DNA — even the very small filters produced so far might be useful.

“For biofiltration, size or cost are not as critical,” Karnik says. “For those applications, the current scale is suitable.”

Dexter Johnson in a Feb. 26,2014 posting provides some context for and insight into the work (from the Nanoclast blog on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers]), Note: Links have been removed,

About 18 months ago, I wrote about an MIT project in which computer models demonstrated that graphene could act as a filter in the desalination of water through the reverse osmosis (RO) method. RO is slightly less energy intensive than the predominantly used multi-stage-flash process. The hope was that the nanopores of the graphene material would make the RO method even less energy intensive than current versions by making it easier to push the water through the filter membrane.

The models were promising, but other researchers in the field said at the time it was going to be a long road to translate a computer model to a real product.

It would seem that the MIT researchers agreed it was worth the effort and accepted the challenge to go from computer model to a real device as they announced this week that they had developed a method for creating selective pores in graphene that make it suitable for water desalination.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Selective Ionic Transport through Tunable Subnanometer Pores in Single-Layer Graphene Membranes by Sean C. O’Hern, Michael S. H. Boutilier, Juan-Carlos Idrobo, Yi Song, Jing Kong, Tahar Laoui, Muataz Atieh, and Rohit Karnik. Nano Lett., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/nl404118f Publication Date (Web): February 3, 2014

Copyright © 2014 American Chemical Society

This article is behind a paywall.

The second item is also from MIT and concerns a low-tech means of purifying water. From a Feb. 27, 2014 news item on Azonano,

If you’ve run out of drinking water during a lakeside camping trip, there’s a simple solution: Break off a branch from the nearest pine tree, peel away the bark, and slowly pour lake water through the stick. The improvised filter should trap any bacteria, producing fresh, uncontaminated water.

In fact, an MIT team has discovered that this low-tech filtration system can produce up to four liters of drinking water a day — enough to quench the thirst of a typical person.

In a paper published this week in the journal PLoS ONE, the researchers demonstrate that a small piece of sapwood can filter out more than 99 percent of the bacteria E. coli from water. They say the size of the pores in sapwood — which contains xylem tissue evolved to transport sap up the length of a tree — also allows water through while blocking most types of bacteria.

Co-author Rohit Karnik, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, says sapwood is a promising, low-cost, and efficient material for water filtration, particularly for rural communities where more advanced filtration systems are not readily accessible.

“Today’s filtration membranes have nanoscale pores that are not something you can manufacture in a garage very easily,” Karnik says. “The idea here is that we don’t need to fabricate a membrane, because it’s easily available. You can just take a piece of wood and make a filter out of it.”

The Feb. 26, 2014 news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes current filtration techniques and the advantages associated with this new low-tech approach,

There are a number of water-purification technologies on the market today, although many come with drawbacks: Systems that rely on chlorine treatment work well at large scales, but are expensive. Boiling water to remove contaminants requires a great deal of fuel to heat the water. Membrane-based filters, while able to remove microbes, are expensive, require a pump, and can become easily clogged.

Sapwood may offer a low-cost, small-scale alternative. The wood is comprised of xylem, porous tissue that conducts sap from a tree’s roots to its crown through a system of vessels and pores. Each vessel wall is pockmarked with tiny pores called pit membranes, through which sap can essentially hopscotch, flowing from one vessel to another as it feeds structures along a tree’s length. The pores also limit cavitation, a process by which air bubbles can grow and spread in xylem, eventually killing a tree. The xylem’s tiny pores can trap bubbles, preventing them from spreading in the wood.

“Plants have had to figure out how to filter out bubbles but allow easy flow of sap,” Karnik observes. “It’s the same problem with water filtration where we want to filter out microbes but maintain a high flow rate. So it’s a nice coincidence that the problems are similar.”

The news release also describes the experimental procedure the scientists followed (from the news release),

To study sapwood’s water-filtering potential, the researchers collected branches of white pine and stripped off the outer bark. They cut small sections of sapwood measuring about an inch long and half an inch wide, and mounted each in plastic tubing, sealed with epoxy and secured with clamps.

Before experimenting with contaminated water, the group used water mixed with red ink particles ranging from 70 to 500 nanometers in size. After all the liquid passed through, the researchers sliced the sapwood in half lengthwise, and observed that much of the red dye was contained within the very top layers of the wood, while the filtrate, or filtered water, was clear. This experiment showed that sapwood is naturally able to filter out particles bigger than about 70 nanometers.

However, in another experiment, the team found that sapwood was unable to separate out 20-nanometer particles from water, suggesting that there is a limit to the size of particles coniferous sapwood can filter.

Finally, the team flowed inactivated, E. coli-contaminated water through the wood filter. When they examined the xylem under a fluorescent microscope, they saw that bacteria had accumulated around pit membranes in the first few millimeters of the wood. Counting the bacterial cells in the filtered water, the researchers found that the sapwood was able to filter out more than 99 percent of E. coli from water.

Karnik says sapwood likely can filter most types of bacteria, the smallest of which measure about 200 nanometers. However, the filter probably cannot trap most viruses, which are much smaller in size.

The researchers have future plans (from the news release),

Karnik says his group now plans to evaluate the filtering potential of other types of sapwood. In general, flowering trees have smaller pores than coniferous trees, suggesting that they may be able to filter out even smaller particles. However, vessels in flowering trees tend to be much longer, which may be less practical for designing a compact water filter.

Designers interested in using sapwood as a filtering material will also have to find ways to keep the wood damp, or to dry it while retaining the xylem function. In other experiments with dried sapwood, Karnik found that water either did not flow through well, or flowed through cracks, but did not filter out contaminants.

“There’s huge variation between plants,” Karnik says. “There could be much better plants out there that are suitable for this process. Ideally, a filter would be a thin slice of wood you could use for a few days, then throw it away and replace at almost no cost. It’s orders of magnitude cheaper than the high-end membranes on the market today.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Water Filtration Using Plant Xylem by Michael S. H. Boutilier, Jongho Lee, Valerie Chambers, Varsha Venkatesh, & Rohit Karnik. PLOS One Published: February 26, 2014 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0089934

This paper is open access.

One final observation, two of the researchers (Michael S. H. Boutilier & Rohit Karnik) listed as authors on the graphene/water desalination paper are also listed on the low-tech sapwood paper solution.*

* The first sentence of the this post originally stated both items were graphene-related, it has been changed to say 1… using graphene and sapwood, respectively*’ on May 8, 2015.

The last sentence of this post was changed from

‘One final observation, two of the researchers listed as authors on the graphene/water desalination paper are also listed on the low-tech sapwood paper (Michael S. H. Boutilier & Rohit Karnik).’

to this

‘One final observation, two of the researchers (Michael S. H. Boutilier & Rohit Karnik) listed as authors on the graphene/water desalination paper are also listed on the low-tech sapwood paper solution.*’ for clarity on May 8, 2015.

Inspired by babies, scientists consider* popping nanoparticle pills and downing nanoparticle potions

Given the choice over injections or suppositories most of us will choose to take medication orally (pills or liquids). It may be a surprise to some but with all the talk about nanomedicine there has been a problem with using nanoparticles in an oral delivery system which scientists at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have solved. From a Nov. 27, 2013 BWH news release, on EurekAlert,

… a study led by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is the first to report in the field of nanomedicine a new type of nanoparticle that can be successfully absorbed through the digestive tract. The findings may one day allow patients to simply take a pill instead of receiving injections.

Until recently, after being injected into the body, nanoparticles travelled to their destination, such as a tumor, by seeping through leaky vessels. The research team, led by Farokhzad [Omid Farokhzad, MD, director of the BWH Laboratory of Nanomedicine and Biomaterials, senior study author] and Robert Langer, ScD of MIT, developed nanoparticles that could reach the target site without relying on injection nor leaky vessels.

For nanoparticles to be taken orally they need to cross the intestinal lining. This lining is composed of a layer of epithelial cells joined together to form impenetrable barriers called tight junctions. To ensure that the nanoparticles could cross these barriers, the researchers took a cue from research on how babies absorb antibodies from their mothers’ milk. The antibodies would grab onto a receptor, known as neonatal Fc receptors, found on the cell surface. This gave them access across the cells of the intestinal lining into neighboring blood vessels.

Based on this knowledge, the researchers decorated nanoparticles with Fc proteins that targeted and bound to these receptors, which are also found in adult intestinal cells. After attaching to the receptors, the Fc-protein-decorated nanoparticles—toting their drug payload—are all absorbed into the intestinal lining and into the bloodstream at a high concentration.

According to the researchers, these receptors can be used to transport nanoparticles carrying different kinds of drugs and other materials—a feat that combines a versatile vehicle and an easily accessible passageway across cellular barriers.

To demonstrate how transport of Fc-targeted nanoparticles could impact the clinical space, the researchers focused on a diabetes treatment scenario, showing how oral delivery of insulin via these targeted nanoparticles could alter blood sugar levels in mice.

Insulin carried in nanoparticles decorated with Fc proteins reached the bloodstream more efficiently than those without the proteins. Moreover, the amount of insulin delivered was large enough to lower the mice’s blood sugar levels. Aside from insulin, the researchers note that the nanoparticles can be used to carry any kind of drug to treat many diseases.

“Being able to deliver nanomedicine orally would offer clinicians broad and novel ways to treat today’s many chronic diseases that require daily therapy, such as diabetes and cancer,” said Langer. “Imagine being able to take RNA or proteins orally; that would be paradigm shift.”

In terms of next steps, the researchers are working to enhance the nanoparticles’ drug-releasing abilities to prepare for future pre-clinical testing with insulin and other drugs. They also plan to design nanoparticles that can cross other barriers, such as the blood-brain barrier, which prevents many drugs from reaching the brain.

The Nov. 27, 2013 MIT news release by Anne Trafton on EurekAlert provides additional insight into the difficulties of getting nanoparticles past our digestive tracts (this is a bit repetitive but there’s enough new detail to make it worth my while to include it here),,

Several types of nanoparticles carrying chemotherapy drugs or short interfering RNA, which can turn off selected genes, are now in clinical trials to treat cancer and other diseases. These particles exploit the fact that tumors and other diseased tissues are surrounded by leaky blood vessels. After the particles are intravenously injected into patients, they seep through those leaky vessels and release their payload at the tumor site.

For nanoparticles to be taken orally, they need to be able to get through the intestinal lining, which is made of a layer of epithelial cells that join together to form impenetrable barriers called tight junctions.

“The key challenge is how to make a nanoparticle get through this barrier of cells. Whenever cells want to form a barrier, they make these attachments from cell to cell, analogous to a brick wall where the bricks are the cells and the mortar is the attachments, and nothing can penetrate that wall,” Farokhzad says.

Researchers have previously tried to break through this wall by temporarily disrupting the tight junctions, allowing drugs through. However, this approach can have unwanted side effects because when the barriers are broken, harmful bacteria can also get through.

To build nanoparticles that can selectively break through the barrier, the researchers took advantage of previous work that revealed how babies absorb antibodies from their mothers’ milk, boosting their own immune defenses. Those antibodies grab onto a cell surface receptor called the FcRN, granting them access through the cells of the intestinal lining into adjacent blood vessels.

The researchers coated their nanoparticles with Fc proteins — the part of the antibody that binds to the FcRN receptor, which is also found in adult intestinal cells. The nanoparticles, made of a biocompatible polymer called PLA-PEG, can carry a large drug payload, such as insulin, in their core.

After the particles are ingested, the Fc proteins grab on to the FcRN in the intestinal lining and gain entry, bringing the entire nanoparticle along with them.

“It illustrates a very general concept where we can use these receptors to traffic nanoparticles that could contain pretty much anything. Any molecule that has difficulty crossing the barrier could be loaded in the nanoparticle and trafficked across,” Karnik [Rohit Karnik, an MIT associate professor of mechanical engineering] says.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the article,

Transepithelial Transport of Fc-Targeted Nanoparticles by the Neonatal Fc Receptor for Oral Delivery by Eric M. Pridgen, Frank Alexis, Timothy T. Kuo, Etgar Levy-Nissenbaum, Rohit Karnik, Richard S. Blumberg, Robert Langer, and Omid C. Farokhzad.
Sci Transl Med 27 November 2013: Vol. 5, Issue 213, p. 213ra167 DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3007049

This article is behind a paywall.

*  ‘consdier’ corrected to ‘consider’ on June 5, 2014.