Nanoparticles talk gives hints at future

Professor Sun gestures meaningfully as he delivers a joint presentation to the Chemistry and Engineering Departments on his work in nanochemistry. (Cat Blewer | Concordiensis)

Brown University’s Dr. Shouheng Sun, Professor of Chemistry and of Engineering, recently gave a joint presentation to the Chemistry and Engineering departments on his work in nanochemistry.

Professor Sun is highly esteemed in his field. In addition to his position at Brown, Sun has worked with the IBM T. J. Watson Research Center. Sun currently serves as Associate Editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry’s journal “Nanoscale”and Co-Director of Brown’s Institute for Molecular and Nanoscale Innovation (IMNI).

As an introduction to his research at Brown, Sun gave a brief overview of Brown’s graduate program.

The chemistry graduate program at Brown is especially small, allowing for better advisor-student interaction. Sun spoke of getting to know his students on a personal level and mentioned with pride the postdoctoral jobs they had taken at well-known corporations like Clorox or at institutes like Johns Hopkins.

Nanoparticles have the potential to be useful in the fields of catalysis, medicine and magnetism.

The key to the nanoparticle’s functionality is its structure and formation, what chemists call “self-assembly.” In solution, nanoparticles like to form certain types of shapes, each with its own unique properties.

Sun became interested in nanoparticle research in 2007 when Brown was visited by GM’s electrically driven hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.

This car, the first of its kind, could run with zero emissions for 300 miles on one tank of hydrogen.

Despite its efficiency, however, the prototype was limited in its range and functionality. The catalyst that allowed for the conversion of hydrogen and oxygen gas to water, electrical current and heat tended to lose efficiency over time. The catalyst would start to stick together, prohibiting the fuel cell’s operation. Sun and another student, after driving in the car and being confronted with this problem, took an interest in nanoparticle synthesis.

Along the way, Sun and his team recognized the potential nanoparticles have in the medical fields, such as in the treatment and diagnosis of cancer.

Cancerous tissues draw more blood, releasing nanoparticles into the bloodstream. Only small nanoparticles are capable of going through the endothelial cell membrane and entering cancerous cells. Once inside the cell, these nanoparticles might be functionalized so as to aid anticancer drugs by altering the pH of the surrounding environment, making the drug more efficient.

The nanoparticles Sun uses are typically gold with an iron or platinum shell. This kind of complex also shows selectivity for converting carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide.

While this may seem like an unhelpful process, carbon monoxide is actually a more activated, more reactive, molecule than carbon dioxide. This means that, within a couple steps, carbon monoxide can be converted into basic compounds like ethane, which is a starting component for many plastics.

Thanks to nanoparticles, it might be possible to one day easily convert carbon dioxide into harmless plastics, treat certain ailments such as cancer, replace oil to power automobiles, and allow for the construction of a more efficient fuel cell. Nanoparticles have the potential to eliminate many of the most worrisome issues of today.


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