Duan Receives NSF CAREER Award

Research and Outreach Will Focus on Carbon Nanofluidics

Graphene sheets can be stacked horizontally to form channels, called graphene nanochannels, or rolled into carbon nanotubes. Image provided by Chuanhua Duan

Boston University Assistant Professor Chuanhua Duan, of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science & Engineering (ME, MSE), netted a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award in recognition of his outstanding research and teaching capabilities. He will receive more than half a million dollars over the next five years to pursue high-impact projects that combine research and educational objectives. Duan’s research will focus on developing an understanding of the fundamental mechanisms that affect the flow of water and ions through nanoscale graphene conduits.

“This exciting project is at the intersection of fluid mechanics, nanotechnology, and materials science,” said Professor Alice White (ME, MSE), chair of ME. “It will inform the design of novel nanoporous membranes with impact on some of the world’s largest challenges.”

Graphene, a flexible sheet of pure carbon one atom thick, is a material that allows surprisingly easy passage for liquids and ions with high selectivity. Graphene sheets can be stacked horizontally to form channels, called graphene nanochannels, or rolled into carbon nanotubes. These structures could potentially be used for water desalination, improving the efficiency of batteries and fuel cells, lab-on-a-chip technologies, and other biomedical applications. However, when researchers have tried to repeat experiments, large discrepancies in the data attributed to variables such as curvature, ion density, and membrane structure have resulted.

To address this challenge, Duan will use his NSF CAREER award to study water and ion transport in single graphene nanochannels and single carbon nanotubes with different sizes, surface properties, and substrate materials. He will also perform molecular dynamics simulations to elucidate underlying mechanisms revealed by his experimental studies. Using this combined experimental-computational approach, he expects to achieve a complete understanding of mass transport in carbon nanofluidic conduits.

Duan will use animated characters to teach carbon nanofluidics to K-12 students.
Duan will use animated characters to teach carbon nanofluidics to K-12 students. Image provided by Chuanhua Duan

“My lab has developed a novel technique, inspired by capillary flow, to accurately measure water and ion transport in a single carbon conduit,” said Duan. “To fully understand the effect that each variable has on the process and resolve discrepancies in previously reported results, this level of accuracy is key.”

In addition to the research component of his CAREER project, Duan will fulfill the educational objectives by creating a module to teach carbon nanofluidics to K–12 students for the Technology Innovation Scholars Program (TISP). In addition, Duan will work with an animator to develop a cartoon that depicts fast-mass transport in carbon nanofluidics using anthropomorphized molecules.

“For example, in one scene we will show water molecules wearing ice skates to demonstrate how easily they slip down the smooth walls of the carbon nanotubes,” said Duan. “Since I know the transport process well, if I can help them visualize that process with something that is familiar, it makes learning about it more accessible.”

A version of this article was originally published in BU College of Engineering.

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