Tag Archives: Siu-On Tung

A hedgehog particle for safer paints and coatings?

The researchers did not extract particles from hedgehogs for this work but they are attempting to provide a description for a class of particles, which could make paints and coatings more environmentally friendly. From a Jan. 28, 2015 news item on phys.org,

A new process that can sprout microscopic spikes on nearly any type of particle may lead to more environmentally friendly paints and a variety of other innovations. Made by a team of University of Michigan engineers, the “hedgehog particles” are named for their bushy appearance under the microscope. …

A Jan. 28, 2015 University of Michigan news release (also EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research,

The new process modifies oily, or hydrophobic, particles, enabling them to disperse easily in water. It can also modify water-soluble, or hydrophilic, particles, enabling them to dissolve in oil or other oily chemicals.

The unusual behavior of the hedgehog particles came as something of a surprise to the research team, says Nicholas Kotov, the Joseph B. and Florence V. Cejka Professor of Engineering.

“We thought we’d made a mistake,” Kotov said. “We saw these particles that are supposed to hate water dispersing in it and we thought maybe the particles weren’t hydrophobic, or maybe there was a chemical layer that was enabling them to disperse. But we double-checked everything and found that, in fact, these particles defy the conventional chemical wisdom that we all learned in high school.”

The team found that the tiny spikes made the particles repel each other more and attract each other less. The spikes also dramatically reduce the particles’ surface area, helping them to diffuse more easily.

One of the first applications for the particles is likely to be in paints and coatings, where toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like toluene are now used to dissolve pigment. Pigments made from hedgehog particles could potentially be dissolved in nontoxic carriers like water, the researchers say.

This would result in fewer VOC emissions from paints and coatings, which the EPA [US Environmental Protection Agency] estimates at over eight million tons per year in the United States alone. VOCs can cause a variety of respiratory and other ailments and also contribute to smog and climate change. Reducing their use has become a priority for the Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory bodies worldwide.

“VOC solvents are toxic, they’re flammable, they’re expensive to handle and dispose of safely,” Kotov said. “So if you can avoid using them, there’s a significant cost savings in addition to environmental benefits.”

While some low- and no-VOC coatings are already available, Kotov says hedgehog particles could provide a simpler, more versatile and less expensive way to manufacture them.

For the study, the team created hedgehog particles by growing zinc oxide spikes on polystyrene microbeads. The researchers say that a key advantage of the process is its flexibility; it can be performed on virtually any type of particle, and makers can vary the number and size of the spikes by adjusting the amount of time the particles sit in various solutions while the protrusions are growing. They can also make the spikes out of materials other than zinc oxide.

“I think one thing that’s really exciting about this is that we’re able to make such a wide variety of hedgehog particles,” said Joong Hwan Bahng, a chemical engineering doctoral student. “It’s very controllable and very versatile.”

The researchers say the process is also easily scalable, enabling hedgehog particles to be created “by the bucketful,” according to Kotov. Further down the road, Kotov envisions a variety of other applications, including better oil dispersants that could aid in the cleanup of oil spills and better ways to deliver non-water-soluble prescription medications.

As is becoming more common in news releases, there’s a reference to commercial partners, suggesting (to me) they might be open to offers,

“Anytime you need to dissolve an oily particle in water, there’s a potential application for hedgehog particles,” he said. “It’s really just a matter of finding the right commercial partners. We’re only just beginning to explore the uses for these particles, and I think we’re going to see a lot of applications in the future.”

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

Anomalous dispersions of ‘hedgehog’ particles by Joong Hwan Bahng, Bongjun Yeom, Yichun Wang, Siu On Tung, J. Damon Hoff, & Nicholas Kotov. Nature 517, 596–599 (29 January 2015) doi:10.1038/nature14092 Published online 28 January 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Kevlar-wrapped batteries on an airplane

Researchers at the University of Michigan are not trying to bulletproof lithium-ion batteries with kevlar. Rather, they’re trying prevent fires. From a Jan. 27, 2015 University of Michigan news release (also on EurekAlert),

New battery technology from the University of Michigan should be able to prevent the kind of fires that grounded Boeing 787 Dreamliners in 2013.

The innovation is an advanced barrier between the electrodes in a lithium-ion battery.

Made with nanofibers extracted from Kevlar, the tough material in bulletproof vests, the barrier stifles the growth of metal tendrils that can become unwanted pathways for electrical current.

A U-M team of researchers also founded Ann Arbor-based Elegus Technologies to bring this research from the lab to market. Mass production is expected to begin in the fourth quarter 2016.

“Unlike other ultra strong materials such as carbon nanotubes, Kevlar is an insulator,” said Nicholas Kotov, the Joseph B. and Florence V. Cejka Professor of Engineering. “This property is perfect for separators that need to prevent shorting between two electrodes.”

Lithium-ion batteries work by shuttling lithium ions from one electrode to the other. This creates a charge imbalance, and since electrons can’t go through the membrane between the electrodes, they go through a circuit instead and do something useful on the way.

But if the holes in the membrane are too big, the lithium atoms can build themselves into fern-like structures, called dendrites, which eventually poke through the membrane. If they reach the other electrode, the electrons have a path within the battery, shorting out the circuit. This is how the battery fires on the Boeing 787 are thought to have started.

“The fern shape is particularly difficult to stop because of its nanoscale tip,” said Siu On Tung, a graduate student in Kotov’s lab, as well as chief technology officer at Elegus. “It was very important that the fibers formed smaller pores than the tip size.”

While the widths of pores in other membranes are a few hundred nanometers, or a few hundred-thousandths of a centimeter, the pores in the membrane developed at U-M are 15-to-20 nanometers across. They are large enough to let individual lithium ions pass, but small enough to block the 20-to-50-nanometer tips of the fern-structures.

The researchers made the membrane by layering the fibers on top of each other in thin sheets. This method keeps the chain-like molecules in the plastic stretched out, which is important for good lithium-ion conductivity between the electrodes, Tung said.

“The special feature of this material is we can make it very thin, so we can get more energy into the same battery cell size, or we can shrink the cell size,” said Dan VanderLey, an engineer who helped found Elegus through U-M’s Master of Entrepreneurship program. “We’ve seen a lot of interest from people looking to make thinner products.”

Thirty companies have requested samples of the material.

Kevlar’s heat resistance could also lead to safer batteries as the membrane stands a better chance of surviving a fire than most membranes currently in use.

While the team is satisfied with the membrane’s ability to block the lithium dendrites, they are currently looking for ways to improve the flow of loose lithium ions so that batteries can charge and release their energy more quickly.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner fires, caused by lithium-ion batteries, these Boeing fires and others are mentioned in my May 29, 2013 post (Life-cycle assessment for electric vehicle lithium-ion batteries and nanotechnology is a risk analysis) scroll down about 50% of the way.

As for the research paper, here’s a link and a citation,

A dendrite-suppressing composite ion conductor from aramid nanofibres by Siu-On Tung, Szushen Ho, Ming Yang, Ruilin Zhang, & Nicholas A. Kotov. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 6152 doi:10.1038/ncomms7152 Published 27 January 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

You can find out more about Elegus Technologies here.