(Nanowerk News) Microscopic materials made from clay designed by researchers at the University of Missouri could be the key to the future of synthetic materials chemistry. By enabling scientists to produce tailor-made chemical coatings to perform specific tasks based on individual researchers’ goals, these materials, called nanoclays, could be used in a wide variety of applications, including medical or environmental science fields.
A fundamental part of this material is its electrically charged surface, said Gary Baker, principal investigator on the project and a professor in the Department of Chemistry.
“Imagine a koosh ball where thousands of strands of rubber radiate from the core of each ball with an electrically charged bead at the end,” says Baker. “It’s analogous to a magnet – positively charged objects will stick to negatively charged objects. For example, positively charged nanoclay can attract a group of harmful fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS, or negatively charged “forever chemicals.” Or, by making nanoclay negatively charged, it can attach to things like heavy metal ions like cadmium, which are positively charged, and help remove them from contaminated bodies of water.”
In addition to electrical charge, each nanoclay can be adapted to different chemical components, such as mixing and matching different parts. This makes it usable in the design of diagnostic sensors for biomedical imaging or the detection of explosives and ordnance.
“In essence, these nanoclays represent chemical building blocks designed with a special function assembled into two-dimensional microscopic sheets that are extremely thin – thinner than a strand of human DNA and 100,000 times thinner than a sheet of paper,” said Baker. “We can adapt the function and shape of the chemical components shown on the nanoclay surface to create whatever we want to build. We’ve just uncovered the tip of the iceberg of what these materials can do.”
The researchers published their findings in ACS Applied Engineering Materials (“Programmable Polycationic Nanoclay Surfaces Support Generating 100,000 Hourly Turnover Frequency for Nanocatalyzed Canonical Nitroarene Reduction”).
Two-dimensional materials are highly sought after because they can superficially coat the outside of large objects into thin, conformal layers and introduce completely different surface properties from those of the objects beneath them.
“By mixing and matching things like different ions or gold nanoparticles, we can rapidly design chemicals like never before, and the more we customize them, the more applications they open up,” Baker said.