A $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) received by an investigative team spearheaded by Elena Galoppini, an associate professor of chemistry at Rutgers-Newark, will allow her and two co-investigators to develop new nanoparticle structures that are hybrids of both organic and inorganic materials. The trio are studying the electrical interaction and compatibility between the two types of particles.
The work is already yielding tangible results: One of Galoppini's co-principal investigators, Gerald Meyer, a professor of chemistry at Johns Hopkins, is in the early stages of testing prototype solar-energy conversion cells that are much more effective at capturing light and transforming it into usable electrical energy than prior versions of solar cells.
"We are not nearly at the point where we could use it to warm our homes now," said Piotr Piotrowiak, a professor of chemistry at Rutgers-Newark and a co-principal investigator on the multidisciplinary team. However, he added, "There is the promise of substantial potential applications of what we are learning and building."
The research team's multidisciplinary approach marks a departure from many past studies in the field of solar cells, where scientists who specialize in organic chemistry and those who specialize in surface science and physical chemistry typically have worked in isolation.
"The interdisciplinary notion is crucial in nanoparticle investigations," said Piotrowiak. Galoppini's specialty, synthetic organic chemistry, allows her to design and build nanostructures, while Piotrowiak's expertise in ultra-fast laser spectroscopy permits him to measure the electrical communication between the organic and non-organic components of the new semiconductor nanostructures that the team is developing. This is critical because current in the form of electrons can move along one of Galoppini's microscopic "nanowires" at speeds measured in picoseconds. One picosecond is less than 1,000th of a billionth of a second.
"We can modify these hybrid nanoparticles in a certain way, study the results and then go back and modify them further if needed," said Galoppini. The key, said both Galoppini and Piotrowiak, is developing a comprehensive enough understanding of these new hybrid nanostructures to be able to accurately predict how the organic and non-organic components will work together in nanosystems.
The development of the nanowires is especially critical because they will link these ultra-tiny structures to macrosize electronic devices, said Piotrowiak. What the team is doing, Galoppini emphasized, is creating an entire range of nanotechnological options for manufacturers of high-tech devices that were not available previously, and some of the team's findings may have practical applications that have not yet even been conceived.
One of these may be nanotechnological devices that are capable of detecting even very small quantities of pollutants and decomposing them. Another possibility, already under investigation, is ultra-thin monitors that would supplant the liquid crystal monitors now used in many computers.
"Eventually we will see whole sets of applications that were not expected," Piotrowiak said. "And once we have laid the groundwork, one can think of even newer and simpler systems that are cheaper to manufacture."