Edition 2015

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Small world, big impact

By Linda Fresques

Researchers’ discoveries possible with nanotechnology

Nano-scale research is becoming increasingly prominent at New Mexico State University’s College of Engineering, largely due to the arrival of new faculty. 

Here, engineers are manipulating materials at the nanoscale, less than 100 nanometers in size – a human hair is approximately 80,000 nanometers in size – to create novel or superior characteristics that enable the manufacture of smaller components and improve performance at a lower cost.

Chemical engineering Assistant Professor Hongmei Luo is following this line of research in her Thin Films and Nanomaterial Laboratory. Luo has more than a decade of experience in nanomaterial research, including work as a post-doctoral research fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory where she and fellow researchers have filed for four patents relating to this technique. She joined the NMSU faculty in 2009, bringing a variety of opportunities to chemical engineering students. Luo’s research could lead to more cost-effective ways to create metal-oxide films that are used in the production of electronic and optical devices.

Julio Martinez

Researcher Julio Martinez uses nanotechnology in his work on thermoelectrics.

Luo and a team of student researchers are developing an approach to create high-quality film of nearly any metal-oxide, ranging in thickness from ten nanometers to hundreds of nanometers.

“Metal-oxides have many valuable properties and a wide variety of applications. We hope to use this less expensive method to produce materials that are comparable in quality to those prepared by other techniques,” said Luo.  More recently, Luo and her group have been exploring the use of metal oxides with lithium ion batteries and super capacitors for use in solar cell applications. Professor Shuguang Deng, a more senior chemical engineer, is working with Toro Energy, a California-based company specialized in developing new energy conversion technologies that incorporate nanomaterials. They are developing the next generation of proton exchange membrane fuel cells that have a much higher thermodynamic conversion efficiency than internal combustion engines or power generation plants. The experiments are being carried out in Deng’s fuel cell labs.

Another new chemical engineering assistant professor is investigating the many applications of thermoelectricity and nanotechnology.  Before joining the NMSU faculty in spring 2013, Julio Martinez worked at the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies in Sandia National Laboratories.

“We use nanomanipulation to essentially pick individual nanowires and place them in our devices. One example of nanotechnology application is converting heat into electricity by high-efficient thermoelectric materials,” he said. “Ten years ago, physicists developed a new theoretical framework for thermoelectrics,” he said. “They found that nanostructured materials would drastically increase the thermoelectric efficiency.”

Krishna Kota, assistant professor of mechanical engineering who joined the NMSU faculty in fall 2012, is conducting research that may lead to longer duration of space missions – a high priority of NASA. It may also lead to energy efficiencies in many other applications, ultimately reducing consumption of fossil fuels and the carbon footprint.

“The problem we are addressing is how to extend NASA space missions. Right now space missions are limited to a few weeks. The goal is to enable prolonged space missions to a few months as opposed to a few weeks,” said Kota who directs the Surface-Fluid Interaction Research Laboratory.

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