Research

Projects Overview

  • Clean water: Au/Pt-Fe-TiO2 , silica scaffold
  • Instrument development: SBW Nonlinear Interferometer, Nomariscope
  • Environmental: ammonia-air inferface

Clean Water

The clean water project targets organic contaminants, bacteria, and pharmaceuticals in drinking water. The UN estimates that four out of ten people suffer from water scarcity; importantly, polluted water can be deadly. This project is based on the wonderful oxidation potential of titania (aka, the white coloration in tooth paste, skim milk, salad dressing…). With a strong oxidation potential, titania turns deadly pollutants into harmless CO2 and water using sunlight. The issue is that native titania is rather inefficient in water. By making the titania particles ultrasmall (less than one nanometer – or 10,000 times smaller than the finest human hair), doping with a very small amount of iron, and decorating each particle with a single Pt or Au atom, the Shultz group succeeded in boosting the efficiency about 10 times – enough to clean water for a family of four in a four-hour sunlight day. Filtering such small particles is impossibly costly. So, our current approach is to avoid filtration by immobilizing these particles on a silica substrate, or scaffold. Opportunities exist to join this effort – success could save a thousand children a day (UN statistics).

Scaffold sample formed via ice templating and supercritical fluid drying
Microscope images of scaffold cross-section morphologies under varied room-temperature aging periods. Extended aging times yield harder gels and impede formation of an interconnected scaffold via freeze-casting.

Instrument Development

Whether developing the photocatalyst scaffold or investigating ammonia-solution interactions, we require suitable instrumentation. Although numerous tools exist for probing solid – especially metal – surfaces, tools for probing complex, flexible, high vapor pressure interfaces are just being developed. The Shultz group invented one: a nonlinear interferometer. Since any surface contains seven to ten orders of magnitude fewer molecules than the bulk phases on either side of the interface, the first requirement is great sensitivity to the surface. For complex mixtures, the second requirement is being able to distinguish among the multiple surface species. The Shultz group uses a technique called sum frequency generation (SFG) to provide the surface sensitivity. Distinguishing among multiple surface species and measuring their concentration requires measuring a complex (in the mathematical sense) signal. We invented a nonlinear interferometer to measure the complex signal. Our current target is to extend this instrument to measure small differences as the surface molecules react to generate new materials. Materials that interact on ice surfaces likely change the surface morphology – either roughening or leveling it. The target of the not-yet-existing Nomariscope is to detect the morphology changes. Opportunities exist to get involved with creating instruments that enable discoveries well beyond the Shultz laboratory.

The SBW SFG Nonlinear Interferometer focuses an IR (red) and a visible (green) frequency on a sample and reference, to generate a complex sum frequency signal (blue).
Schematic of Differential Interference Microscope (DIM). A laser passes over the surface of a material and is reflected to a detector that uses interference patterns to map the sample’s surface. DIM utilizes a Nomarski prism that splits light and puts the plane of interference outside of the prism. This allows for flexibility and active focusing of the  microscope.

Environmental: Ammonia

The current environmental project focuses on ammonia. The ability to turn molecular nitrogen into ammonia (fertilizer) has been characterized as the single most important chemical discovery ever: it is responsible for half the nitrogen atoms in every person’s proteins! Unfortunately, half of all fertilizer escapes, polluting water (think bright green algae) or finds its way into the atmosphere. Ammonia’s fate in the atmosphere is largely unknown. What is known is that ammonia is the only significant concentration basic gas in the atmosphere. As a base, it reacts with the plethora of acidic gases to form solids known as cloud condensation nuclei. Clouds, in turn, are the largest uncertainty for understanding the environment. This project focuses on interaction between aqueous solutions and ice with ammonia. The ultimate goal from understanding these interactions is to design fertilizers that hold ammonia in the soil to be accessible to the plants it was put there to fertilize. Current opportunities focus on characterizing the fundamental interactions.