UALR researchers work to improve the world through nanocarbons

From left: Drs. Allan Thomas, Brian Berry, Nawab Ali, and Tito Viswanathan. Photo by Lonnie Timmons III

A team of University of Arkansas at Little Rock researchers is exploring ways to change the world with the help of tiny, incredibly strong materials.

Supported by a $50,000 seed grant from the UALR Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, the team will research the potential of modified nanocarbons to purify water, generate and store energy, and attack bacteria.

Dr. Tito Viswanathan, professor of chemistry, will lead the project, and Drs. Brian Berry, associate professor of chemistry, Nawab Ali, associate professor of biology; and Allan Thomas, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, join him as co-principal investigators.

The team will convert lignin and tannin, both abundant plant-based renewable resources, into “doped” nanocarbon, using an innovative, cost-effective process Viswanathan designed.

When carbon nanomaterials are “doped,” chemical elements, such as nitrogen or chlorine, replace some carbon atoms, changing the material’s structure and giving it unusual traits.

The changes “are actually defects in the carbon structure,” Viswanathan said, “and these defects lead to some exciting properties, including high electrical conductivity.”

With these microscopic modified materials, the researchers hope to alleviate some of the world’s most critical problems.

For example, the need for safe, sustainable, and affordable food, energy, and water is both urgent and globally recognized. Indeed, the National Science Foundation is investing millions of dollars in research projects that offer innovative approaches to addressing it.

The UALR project has the potential to meet numerous global needs — without draining the earth’s resources.

“Most of the (current) resources that we rely on for our existence are nonrenewable resource based. So, if you’re dependent on those nonrenewable resources, you cannot have a sustainable civilization,” Viswanathan said. “The project theoretically involves all aspects of sustainability.”

Unique applications

While nanocarbon research is relatively common today, this project stands out because the UALR team’s process is efficient and sustainable at every step — from the source of the nanocarbons to the method used to prepare them, to the practical uses of the finished products, Viswanathan said.

Doped nanocarbons with multi-functional, real-world applications in food, water, and energy are rare. Viswanathan and his team are some of the only researchers exploring this blended area.

“We’re using renewable resources, very little investment, producing these nanocarbons with amazing properties, which can solve a whole lot of problems,” Viswanathan said.

Student opportunities

Not only does the research have the potential to improve the world, but the researchers are making sure that the next generation has this potential as well.

Each participating scientist will supervise a UALR undergraduate student, training him or her in research practices and lab work. The researchers will intentionally seek out students from underrepresented groups, giving them hands-on preparation for a career in science that they might not otherwise have an opportunity to access.

The team knows first-hand the importance of giving students practical research experience.

More than a decade ago, Berry worked under Viswanathan as a graduate student. Today, the two have authored multiple publications together, and Berry is the coordinator for the UALR Applied Science graduate program.

A versatile team

Berry’s expertise in chemistry, as well as Ali’s in biology and Thomas’ in physics, is essential to the research plan. Viswanathan said the project couldn’t exist without the co-PIs’ involvement.

“This is a project that one person cannot do alone, because it’s so branched out, and we need everybody’s expertise and input to make it a success.”

To the researchers, success would mean patentable, highly useful products that benefit humanity. And with grant funding, compelling preliminary data, and brilliant student and faculty researchers on their side, meeting this ambitious goal could be just a few years away.   

Photo: From left: Drs. Allan Thomas, Brian Berry, Nawab Ali, and Tito Viswanathan. Photo by Lonnie Timmons III

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