An innovative addition to the chemist’s toolbox

An innovative addition to the chemist’s toolbox

Researchers at the University of Missouri (MU) in the US have developed a groundbreaking technology using clay-based microscopic materials. These nanoclays hold immense promise for the field of synthetic materials chemistry.

Nanoclays possess a uniquely electrically charged surface, making them highly versatile for tailoring chemical layers to perform specific tasks, as required by individual researchers. Potential applications span a wide range of fields, including medicine and environmental science.

Gary Baker, an associate professor in MU’s Department of Chemistry and co-principal investigator of the project, offered a helpful analogy to explain the concept. He likened the nanoclays to a Koosh ball, with numerous rubber strands extending from the core, each sporting an electrically charged bead at the end. This electrical charge plays a crucial role, much like magnets, as positively charged nanoclays can attract and interact with negatively charged substances, and vice versa.

As an example, positively charged nanoclays could be employed to attract and capture harmful fluorinated chemicals like PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals”, which carry a negative charge. Similarly, by rendering the nanoclays negatively charged, they can effectively bind with positively charged heavy metal ions like cadmium, facilitating their removal from contaminated bodies of water.

The ability to customise the chemical properties of nanoclays based on specific research objectives opens up exciting possibilities for various practical applications, making them a crucial component in the development of advanced synthetic materials with diverse functions.

Apart from their electrically charged surface, each nanoclay can be uniquely tailored by incorporating different chemical components. This is akin to mixing and matching a variety of building blocks. This exceptional feature renders nanoclays highly versatile and enables practical applications in the creation of diagnostic sensors for biomedical imaging and the detection of explosives and ordnance.

As described by Baker, these nanoclays are essentially chemical building blocks, deliberately designed with specific functions that can be assembled into incredibly thin, two-dimensional microscopic sheets. Remarkably, these sheets are approximately 100,000 times thinner than a standard sheet of paper – thinner than a single strand of human DNA. The beauty of this technology lies in the ability to customise both the function and shape of the chemical components at the surface of the nanoclays, enabling the creation of virtually any desired structure.

With this groundbreaking capability, researchers have just begun to scratch the surface of the potential applications these materials can offer. The possibilities appear to be unlimited, and nanoclays hold the potential to revolutionise various fields by unleashing their remarkable properties in ways we are yet to explore fully.

The high demand for two-dimensional materials arises from their ability to form a thin, conformal layer on the outer surface of bulky objects, introducing entirely different surface properties compared to the underlying object.

According to Baker, through the clever combination of various elements such as different ions or gold nanoparticles, they can rapidly create new chemical compositions that have never been seen before. This tailored approach unlocks a broad spectrum of potential applications.

The research, titled “Surface programmable polycationic nanoclay supports yielding 100,000 per hour turnover frequencies for a nanocatalyzed canonical nitroarene reduction” was recently published in ACS Applied Engineering Materials, a journal by the American Chemical Society. The co-authors include Nathaniel Larm from the US Naval Academy, Durgesh Wagle from Florida Gulf Coast University, and Piyuni Ishtaweera and Angira Roy from MU.

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