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Nanoposres Seawater id41830University of Illinois engineers have found an energy-efficient material for removing salt from seawater that could provide a rebuttal to poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s lament, “Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink.”

The material, a nanometer-thick sheet of molybdenum disulfide (MoS2) riddled with tiny holes called nanopores, is specially designed to let high volumes of water through but keep salt and other contaminates out, a process called desalination. In a study published in the journal Nature Communications (“Water desalination with a single-layer MoS2 nanopore”), the Illinois team modeled various thin-film membranes and found that MoS2 showed the greatest efficiency, filtering through up to 70 percent more water than graphene membranes.
nanopore water filter
A computer model of a nanopore in a single-layer sheet of MoS2 shows that high volumes of water can pass through the pore using less pressure than standard plastic membranes. Salt water is shown on the left, fresh water on the right. (Image: Mohammad Heiranian)
“Even though we have a lot of water on this planet, there is very little that is drinkable,” said study leader Narayana Aluru, a U. of I. professor of mechanical science and engineering. “If we could find a low-cost, efficient way to purify sea water, we would be making good strides in solving the water crisis.
“Finding materials for efficient desalination has been a big issue, and I think this work lays the foundation for next-generation materials. These materials are efficient in terms of energy usage and fouling, which are issues that have plagued desalination technology for a long time,” said Aluru, who also is affiliated with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the U. of I.
Most available desalination technologies rely on a process called reverse osmosis to push seawater through a thin plastic membrane to make fresh water. The membrane has holes in it small enough to not let salt or dirt through, but large enough to let water through. They are very good at filtering out salt, but yield only a trickle of fresh water. Although thin to the eye, these membranes are still relatively thick for filtering on the molecular level, so a lot of pressure has to be applied to push the water through.
“Reverse osmosis is a very expensive process,” Aluru said. “It’s very energy intensive. A lot of power is required to do this process, and it’s not very efficient. In addition, the membranes fail because of clogging. So we’d like to make it cheaper and make the membranes more efficient so they don’t fail as often. We also don’t want to have to use a lot of pressure to get a high flow rate of water.”
One way to dramatically increase the water flow is to make the membrane thinner, since the required force is proportional to the membrane thickness. Researchers have been looking at nanometer-thin membranes such as graphene. However, graphene presents its own challenges in the way it interacts with water.
Aluru’s group has previously studied MoS2 nanopores as a platform for DNA sequencing and decided to explore its properties for water desalination. Using the Blue Waters supercomputer at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the U. of I., they found that a single-layer sheet of MoS2 outperformed its competitors thanks to a combination of thinness, pore geometry and chemical properties.
A MoS2 molecule has one molybdenum atom sandwiched between two sulfur atoms. A sheet of MoS2, then, has sulfur coating either side with the molybdenum in the center. The researchers found that creating a pore in the sheet that left an exposed ring of molybdenum around the center of the pore created a nozzle-like shape that drew water through the pore.
“MoS2 has inherent advantages in that the molybdenum in the center attracts water, then the sulfur on the other side pushes it away, so we have much higher rate of water going through the pore,” said graduate student Mohammad Heiranian, the first author of the study. “It’s inherent in the chemistry of MoS2 and the geometry of the pore, so we don’t have to functionalize the pore, which is a very complex process with graphene.”
In addition to the chemical properties, the single-layer sheets of MoS2 have the advantages of thinness, requiring much less energy, which in turn dramatically reduces operating costs. MoS2 also is a robust material, so even such a thin sheet is able to withstand the necessary pressures and water volumes.
The Illinois researchers are establishing collaborations to experimentally test MoS2 for water desalination and to test its rate of fouling, or clogging of the pores, a major problem for plastic membranes. MoS2 is a relatively new material, but the researchers believe that manufacturing techniques will improve as its high performance becomes more sought-after for various applications.
“Nanotechnology could play a great role in reducing the cost of desalination plants and making them energy efficient,” said Amir Barati Farimani, who worked on the study as a graduate student at Illinois and is now a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University. “I’m in California now, and there’s a lot of talk about the drought and how to tackle it. I’m very hopeful that this work can help the designers of desalination plants. This type of thin membrane can increase return on investment because they are much more energy efficient.”
Source: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
QD Brightness U of Illinois 100515 id41509Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have introduced a new class of light-emitting quantum dots (QDs) with tunable and equalized fluorescence brightness across a broad range of colors. This results in more accurate measurements of molecules in diseased tissue and improved quantitative imaging capabilities.
“In this work, we have made two major advances–the ability to precisely control the brightness of light-emitting particles called quantum dots, and the ability to make multiple colors equal in brightness,” explained Andrew M. Smith, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Illinois. “Previously light emission had an unknown correspondence with molecule number. Now it can be precisely tuned and calibrated to accurately count specific molecules. This will be particularly useful for understanding complex processes in neurons and cancer cells to help us unravel disease mechanisms, and for characterizing cells from diseased tissue of patients.”
Quantum Dots
Left: Conventional fluorescent materials like quantum dots and dyes have mismatched brightness between different colors. When these materials are administered to a tumor (shown below) to measure molecular concentrations, the signals are dominated by the brighter fluorophores. Right: New brightness-equalized quantum dots that have equal fluorescence brightness for different colors. When these are administered to tumors, the signals are evenly matched, allowing measurement of many molecules at the same time. (Image: University of Illinois)
“Fluorescent dyes have been used to label molecules in cells and tissues for nearly a century, and have molded our understanding of cellular structures and protein function. But it has always been challenging to extract quantitative information because the amount of light emitted from a single dye is unstable and often unpredictable. Also the brightness varies drastically between different colors, which complicates the use of multiple dye colors at the same time. These attributes obscure correlations between measured light intensity and concentrations of molecules,” stated Sung Jun Lim, a postdoctoral fellow and first author of the paper, “Brightness-Equalized Quantum Dots,” published this week in Nature Communications.
According to the researchers, these new materials will be especially important for imaging in complex tissues and living organisms where there is a major need for quantitative imaging tools, and can provide a consistent and tunable number of photons per tagged biomolecule. They are also expected to be used for precise color matching in light-emitting devices and displays, and for photon-on-demand encryption applications. The same principles should be applicable across a wide range of semiconducting materials.
“The capacity to independently tune the QD fluorescence brightness and color has never before been possible, and these BE-QDs now provide this capability,” said Lim. “We have developed new materials-engineering principles that we anticipate will provide a diverse range of new optical capabilities, allow quantitative multicolor imaging in biological tissue, and improve color tuning in light-emitting devices. In addition, BE-QDs maintain their equal brightness over time while whereas conventional QDs with mismatched brightness become further mismatched over time.

These attributes should lead to new LEDs and display devices not only with precisely matched colors–better color accuracy and brightness–but also with improved performance lifetime and improved ease of manufacturing.” QDs are already in use in display devices (e.g. Amazon Kindle and a new Samsung TV).

Source: University of Illinois College of Engineering

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