$1.5M NSF grant helps nanoparticle manufacturing

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Syl Kacapyr
Tobias Hanrath
Richard Robinson

Making large quantities of reliable, inexpensive nanoparticles for batteries, solar cells, catalysts and other energy applications has proven challenging due to manufacturing limits. A Cornell research team is working to improve such processes with a $1.5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to support scalable nanomanufacturing and device integration.

Richard Robinson, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, and Tobias Hanrath, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, have been awarded a four-year Nanoscale Interdisciplinary Research Team grant through the NSF’s Scalable Nanomanufacturing Program.

Their goal is to improve large-scale, solution-phase synthesis of high-quality nanoparticles – in particular metal sulfides – and demonstrate their integration into devices including battery electrodes and solar photovoltaics.

As Robinson explains, “the properties of colloidal quantum dots can be tuned by changing their size and composition, and the field has really come a long way over the years to learn how to tailor those properties to be ideal for energy applications. We’re really on the forefront of this technology. The problem is that there hasn’t been a way to make a massive amount of particles that are all exactly the same size and composition.  Scalable methods to manufacture nanoparticles could really change the landscape.”

The key to their project will be the use of a reactive precursor that had previously only been limited to aqueous-phase synthesis of nanomaterials. Their method could potentially benefit the application of semiconductors and semi-metal colloidal nanocrystals by providing a nontoxic alternative to metal chalcogenide systems, including the widely used semiconductor cadmium selenide.

Hanrath, co-principal investigator, analogized the research goals with the development of polymers and plastics 50 years ago. Transforming polymers from a bench-scale scientific discovery to a multibillion dollar industry involved “several interesting chemical engineering challenges,” Hanrath noted.

“We’re excited about the prospect of applying similar concepts to develop methods for the scalable production of high-quality nanoparticles to enable the deployment and commercialization of emerging nanotechnologies,” Hanrath said.

The grant, which runs through 2017, also covers outreach and education activities, including an NSF-sponsored K-12 education program to work with high school teachers for enhancing nanoscience curricula.

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