October 31, 2008

Melissa Gordon ’11 Works with Chemicals on the Nanoscale

Chemical engineering major writes about her research with Professor James Ferri

Melissa Gordon ’11 (Montvale, N.J.), a chemical engineering major, spent her summer working on nanotechnology research with James Ferri, associate professor of chemical engineering.

During this past summer, I worked with Ashley Cramer ’10 and Professor Ferri on an EXCEL project which involved investigating the effect of nanoconfinement on the strength of membranes. Strength is a key mechanical property of materials since it measures the ability for a material to bear load.

As tinier and more durable devices are becoming more desirable, the need to use strong nanoscale components that can withstand manufacturing and use is becoming increasingly important. Nanotechnology deals with controlling matter on a scale of 100nm or smaller and has the potential to revolutionize many aspects of our world—ranging from medical processes and drugs to consumer products and electronics.

Interestingly, on the nanoscale, as the lateral dimension decreases, the strength increases. For example, nanocomposites of proteins and minerals – like teeth, bones, and shells – exhibit superior strength. Due to this magnitude of strength found at the nanometer scale, it is reasonable to look for parallels in nature that can be mirrored and applied to engineering. Membranes are becoming increasingly important to study and this was the focus of our EXCEL project.

Ashley and I first began our project by reading publications and conducting calibration experiments to determine the optimal conditions to use in the membrane experiments. Ashley, Professor Ferri and I built nanocomposite membranes composed of phospholipids and polyelectrolytes. After the membranes were synthesized, we measured their mechanical properties by stretching them.

We also worked on a secondary project which included designing and testing microfluidic devices. At the nanometer and micrometer scale, the fluid behavior differs from what we expect from everyday experience. As the channel size in the microfluidic device decreases to about 100 micrometers, there is almost no turbulent flow and instead the flow is laminar. In other words, we learned that if two different fluids are flowing next to each other, they will remain in parallel and not mix until diffusion causes them to eventually do so.

Working under the guidance of Professor Ferri has been a rewarding experience for me. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to understand and participate in his innovative research projects. I first started learning about nanotechnology and microfluidics in his nanotechnology First-Year Seminar last fall which I found incredibly fascinating. This led me to consider majoring in chemical engineering. Although chemical engineering generally involves scaling up processes, I’ve learned that scaling down is equally important. I am interested in medicine so working with nanomembranes was an EXCEL project that especially appealed to me. I know that my experience will prove invaluable in the coming years.

  • Chemical Engineering
  • EXCEL/Undergraduate Research

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