March 5, 2024

Keeping VOCs away from sensitive technology

A few stray molecules in the air can easily destroy the nanotechnology.

But US engineers have developed a smart, portable, inexpensive container that can keep sensitive materials free from even the most difficult-to-clean substances: volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

The devices could make manufacturing and studying nanomaterials easier, since they avoid the need to use more difficult or expensive cleaning methods.

VOCs are carbon molecules that are typically emitted from household products such as paints and cleaning liquids.

“VOCs are in the air around us every day,” says Dr. Daniel Preston, assistant professor at Rice University, USA, and corresponding author of a paper describing the research, published in Nana Letters.

“They attach to surfaces and form a coating, mainly carbon. You can’t see these layers with the naked eye, but they form, often within minutes, on almost any surface exposed to air.”

They can accumulate in generally undetectable amounts, but can very easily affect nanometer-sized objects such as microfluidic features, computer chips or other research and manufacturing at the nanoscale.

The researchers have discovered how to avoid this by designing a smart storage container.

Inside the container is an ultra-clean wall, covered with nanometer bumps and dips.

Ph.D. student Zhen Liu with one of the containers. Credit: Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

“The texture allows the inner wall of the container to act as a ‘sacrificial’ material,” says lead author Zhen Liu, a PhD student at Rice.

“VOCs are attracted to the surface of the container wall, allowing other things stored inside to remain clean.”

Liu and colleagues have shown that their containers keep their delicate nanostructures cleaner than other methods, such as sealed Petri dishes or vacuum driers (sealed laboratory equipment designed to keep materials clean or dry).

They’ve also modeled what’s happening inside the container, which they say will help them further improve and optimize the containers.

Image of the detailed surface
An electron microscope scanning image (scale bar 500 billionths of a meter long) reveals numerous imperfections in this surface. Credit: Image courtesy of Preston Innovation Laboratory/Rice University)

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