Holes in Prof's Special Polymers Are Filled With Possibilities
Materials May Lead to Higher-Capacity Batteries and New Ways to Administer Drugs
Jan. 29, 2013
Dr. Ron Smaldone's work on nanoporous materials has potential applications in energy storage and drug delivery technology.
When Dr. Ronald Smaldone joined the UT Dallas faculty last fall, he brought with him an ace in the hole – research expertise centered on novel, porous materials that have wide-ranging potential applications, from batteries to drug delivery to energy storage.
The materials Smaldone is developing are nanoporous polymers. In bulk they appear crystalline or powder-like, but a microscope reveals tiny openings where small molecules can enter and become trapped and released, just as water molecules get trapped in a sponge.
The polymers may be full of holes, Smaldone said, but that chemically engineered nanoporosity is a very useful property. Such materials have extremely high surface areas, up to 1,200 square meters in a teaspoonful. All those tiny nooks and crannies can store catalytic chemicals, form the basis of a new generation of batteries, or store energy-rich gasses such as hydrogen and methane.
“As you fill a hydrogen tank with gas, most of the hydrogen is actually stuck to the sides of the tank,” said Smaldone, an assistant professor of chemistry. “There is a lot of empty space. But, if you first fill a tank with a material that is highly porous, you can actually store more hydrogen in the tank than if it were ‘empty’ to start. It’s kind of counterintuitive.”
Developing nanoporous materials for lithium-ion batteries is an important area of research, Smaldone said, noting that these types of batteries power consumer electronics such as cell phones and portable devices. Researchers at UT Dallas and elsewhere are working on next-generation lithium-ion battery technology that is more efficient and has a higher energy-storage capacity for use in electric vehicles and other machines.
“As a chemist, my aim is to modify existing chemicals to have unique chemical functionality, and I believe I can make significant contributions to this field,” Smaldone said.
While a postdoctoral research associate at Northwestern University, Smaldone created a porous material out of cornstarch and table salt that can capture molecules of carbon dioxide. The material is not only edible, but also has the potential to help soak up carbon dioxide from car exhausts and coal-fired power plants.
“I’m also interested in developing novel biomaterials for applications like drug delivery, but if I’m going to work in that area, I’ll need collaborators with biology expertise,” Smaldone said. “That’s one reason being at UT Dallas is so exciting. There is expertise in many fields not just here on campus, but also nearby at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
“Also, the chemistry department and all of UT Dallas are growing quickly. As a young professor, it’s good to get in when the institution is growing, to have an opportunity to help influence the direction of its development.”
A native of Detroit, Smaldone earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry from the University of Michigan and a PhD, also in chemistry, from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
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