All posts by Leander Taylor, III

The System Works (In More Detail)!

Project Update

Earlier in the summer,  we found that we can decompose urea into ammonia.  However, we wanted to quantify the ammonia production in different ways.  So last week, we set up one huge experiment with multiple parts.

We repeated the use of an infrared laser to vaporize the urea, but we added a thermal camera and a balance.  The thermal camera allowed us to measure the temperature of the solution in real-time.  The balance allowed us to measure the amount of mass lost due to vaporization as we heat the urea solution.

The laser heated the solution, but only on the surface (the brighter portion of the image below); the rest of the sample remained close to room temperature!

Field Trip!

On Monday we took a trip to a water treatment plant.  It was really interesting to see how many steps are involved in purifying water from the different lakes around Houston.  One thing I did notice was the focus on removing the solid particles, then the treatment for pathogens.  Nanotechnology would be a great bridge between the two steps, and may also help remove the pathogens altogether.

At the end of the tour, we did a scavenger hunt and I found these posters:

These would be a great way to have students present information they have learned!  For example, my Physics students could make wanted posters of Physics laws or famous physicists.



The beginning of the week greeted us with a day of sun, so we ran out to do experiments!  We tested how well three different types of nanoparticles absorbed and released energy from the sun.

Throughout the rest of the week, I shadowed a Jordin Metz, a graduate student in our lab, as he made copper nanoparticles.  He may not know it, but he’s a great teacher.  He walked us through every step of the process, answered questions, asked questions that made us think and remember material, and made sure we participated in all of the lab procedures.  I was able to sneak in a few pictures of him teaching Ifeoluw Adebiyi, a participant in the REU program, how to use a FTIR (Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy) machine.

On Thursday, I had the honor to present our findings to Dr. Halas’ research group.  I can’t say I wasn’t nervous; it’s always difficult to give a speech to a large group of people, especially when those people are the top researchers in their field.  But at the same time, it was invigorating to field questions and go discuss possible steps to take in the future.  I even had a chance to watch the Halas Group perfect a presentation for a conference coming up next week.  They gave me several ideas to take back into the classroom, such as making sure your first and last slides create an impact.  You want people to be interested at the beginning of your talk and have something to take away at the end.

I can’t believe there are only a couple of weeks left!  There is still so much to learn and to do!

A Week of Process Development

Lab Progress:

This week in the Halas lab, we spent most of our time analyzing date from last week’s experiment.  Analysis kits are great because they put everything into nice, easy steps.  Of course, then the kit doesn’t work the way you expect.  Here’s what happened…

First, we were able to create steam from the urea solution, but the vapor didn’t travel all the way through the condensing column.  The vapor would condense in the original flask, then drip back into the starting solution.

Second, the kit we are using is meant to test for ammonia.  It appears that urea will react with the kit as well, so we had to account for all of the background from the starting solution.

Now, with all of that said, we were able to decompose the urea into ammonia using carbon nanoparticles!  As the reaction (laser treatment) time increased, we saw more ammonia being produced.   The ammonia concentration increased in the solution and the condensed vapor!

Round Robin Tours:

Thank you so much to everyone who were kind enough to walk us through their labs on Thursday!  I got to see so many different types of research:  nanofibers being sewn into clothing, fruit flies, amino acids, hyrogels, viruses, and lab techniques that are way more advanced than I was in school!  I even got a chance to revisit my old stomping grounds before I started teaching: BRC Lab 310!

Oh, and I want to apologize for keeping everyone out in the heat.  My lab works with solar energy, so we have to be outside….


A Week of Rain, and Discovery!

Well, the rain shut down our solar experiments, but it couldn’t stop progress!

Before we could start decomposing urea using solar energy, he had to test the idea small scale.  We made a stock solution of urea (artificial urine).  From the stock solution, we made a sample of urea and carbon nanoparticles.

Since we did not have the sun to rely on, we decided to use an infrared laser instead.  We set up a distillation column, so that any steam could condense in a different flask.  Shining the laser on one section of the solution immediately created steam!  Every few minutes, we collected a sample from the solution (even though we created steam, it would condense before leaving the flask).  Twelve minutes with a laser heated up the flask to the point I could barely hold it!

We tested each sample for ammonia using the assay kit from the week before.  The samples were compared to distilled water and the stock urea solution.  All of our samples had more ammonia than the controls!  The system works!


Fun In the Sun!

My first week as a NEWT-RET intern can be summed up as “Learn, Understand, Ask Questions, and Try It Out!”  But that’s a little short for this blog post, so I should go back and explain.

This summer, I am working in Dr. Naomi Halas’ lab, with the goal to decompose urea into ammonia and carbon dioxide using aluminum nanoparticles and solar energy.  Decomposition of urea into ammonia is already used in several applications, from plastic production to removing pollutants from diesel fuel.  Ammonia is what is needed, but it’s difficult to store.  Urea is simple to store and use, and you have the added benefit of using a waste material (urine) to make a compound that’s needed everywhere.  Adding nanoparticles into the system will allow for this decomposition to occur without spending extra money on the energy required.  The sun will provide all the energy we need.

To accomplish this goal, I am working with my mentor, Dr. Oara Neumann.  I absolutely love her teaching style!  It is not enough to just be able to read the procedure and run the experiments.  She wants me (and everyone else in the lab) to understand the underlying principles.  Do we understand why we’re doing these experiments?  What is the theory behind it? How do we get from theory to practice?

So the first step for me was to understand how urea decomposes into ammonia.  Then I spent time in the lab, learning how to create different types of nanoparticles, aluminum-MOFs (aluminum particles coated with metal-organic frameworks) and nano matroyshkas (layered nanoparticles, named after the stackable dolls).  I observed the construction of the solar module we would be using.  We even created a calibration curve so we could determine the concentration of ammonia we obtain!

Throughout each step, I would have questions.  Dr. Neumann teaches me the same way I teach my students: answer a question with a question.  It’s easy to just give someone the answer, but then they won’t really learn or understand.  It’s better to help them work toward the answer.  Give them questions that would help them find the answers they seek.  She has helped me gain a much better understanding of the process, especially the chemistry!

The real trick is going to be the use of this little guy:

This is the solar module that will hold a membrane coated with the aluminum-MOF nanoparticles.  As the sun shines on it, the nanoparticles will absorb and resonate that energy to the surrounding solution, causing it to turn to vapor before the entire solution is even able to boil.  The ammonia vapor will pass through the membrane and condense, so we can collect it.  It’s great! It’s fantastic!  It requires a sunny day, and it’s going to rain for a full week….

Not a problem.  We will just have everything ready and run out into the sun.