Nanotechnology Now

Our NanoNews Digest Sponsors





Heifer International

Wikipedia Affiliate Button


android tablet pc

Home > Press > INL scientist is harnessing the power of plasma

Kong’s Plasma Nanoparticle Fabricator (PNF) converts sand-size grains of feedstock material (shown here) to nanoparticles very efficiently, generating no byproducts.
Kong’s Plasma Nanoparticle Fabricator (PNF) converts sand-size grains of feedstock material (shown here) to nanoparticles very efficiently, generating no byproducts.

Abstract:
by Mike Wall, Research Communications Fellow

Most schoolchildren learn that everything in the universe is a solid, a liquid or a gas. But those lessons miss the fourth and by far most common state of matter: plasma.

INL scientist is harnessing the power of plasma

Idaho Falls, ID | Posted on October 26th, 2009

Plasma is like a gas, but many of its atoms have been stripped of an electron or two. These positively charged atoms swim about in a crackling-hot sea of negatively charged loose electrons, making plasmas great electrical conductors.

Plasma is mysterious and powerful, the stuff of stars, of lightning. Scientists have harnessed it to make welding torches, fluorescent lights and bright, sharp big-screen TVs, as well as those glass novelty globes full of snaking purple current that make your hair stand on end when you touch them. But plasma can do more, much more, and Idaho National Laboratory's Peter Kong is giving the world a glimpse of its true potential.

Kong, technical lead for plasma processing at INL, has built a career of putting plasma to work. He's using it to mass-produce nanoparticles, a project that in August received $1 million in federal stimulus funding. He's also employing plasma to find ways to store hydrogen efficiently, and he'll soon start a project using plasma to convert natural gas, coal and heavy oil to gasoline and diesel. These last two efforts could help the United States break its addiction to foreign oil and, perhaps, to fossil fuels altogether.

A nanoparticle factory
Kong, a quiet, affable man who keeps a pair of soccer shoes in his INL office, first started working with plasma as a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota, where he studied under one of the top experts in the field.

"I found plasma to be a very interesting subject," he says, "one that could be applied to a lot of areas other than welding, cutting or spraying."

One of these areas is the production of nanoparticles, bits of matter tens of thousands of times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. Because nanoparticles are so tiny, a high percentage of their constituent atoms are on their surfaces rather than hidden away inside. Surface interactions thus dominate the lives of nanoparticles, and as a result, nano-sized specks of a particular substance often have different physical and chemical properties than larger chunks. Scientists are just beginning to exploit nanoparticles, but they hold great promise in many applications, including anti-microbial and cancer-fighting drugs, stronger, corrosion-resistant materials and more efficient solar panels, fuel cells and batteries.

But nanoparticles can be difficult and expensive to make. Kong is hoping to change that with his unique Plasma Nanoparticle Fabricator, a man-sized conglomeration of cables and shiny steel that looks a bit like a robotic squid. Sand-size grains of material fed into the PNF get vaporized by a plasma arc exceeding 12,000 degrees Celsius, twice as hot as the surface of the sun. As the vapor exits the reactor's processing zone, the gas cools down so fast—a rate of 1 million degrees per second—that its atoms have very little time to glom together. Each atom clumps with only a few others, forming nanoparticles.

Other nanoparticle-production methods grind raw materials down, burn them up using fossil fuels or dunk them in various chemical baths. But Kong's PNF is a step above. It makes high-quality (very small and relatively uniform) nanoparticles more cheaply and can handle a wider range of raw materials. And, because it converts 100 percent of its feedstock to nanoparticles, it generates no byproducts. Other conventional plasma reactors can't come close to this conversion rate, which the PNF achieves with a much longer plasma arc. Also contributing are the higher, more uniform temperatures in the PNF's processing zones, and the fact that raw materials remain in these zones for longer periods of time.

At the moment, the PNF is in a pre-pilot stage. Kong and his team will use the newly awarded grant money to test and tweak the invention further. Within a couple of years, he hopes to build a bigger, more powerful version that is completely user-friendly, so that anyone can operate it with minimal training. And he wants the new, improved PNF to make even smaller, more uniform nanoparticles. This is possible, Kong says; he just needs to increase the velocity of the vapor coming out of the reactor, and cool it down faster—perhaps at 10 million degrees per second or even faster. He has ideas about how to do this but is not yet ready to discuss the details publicly.

Sometime in the coming year, Kong may also begin work on a more specialized version of the PNF. He has a proposal in to the U.S. Army to manufacture nanocomposite materials for lightweight armors. Nanomaterials have great protective potential; the fine grain, high surface area and many boundaries of nanoparticles can greatly diffuse a projectile's impact. And they can form more bonds with each other than can larger building blocks, generating more strength.

"The material I want to develop and produce will have multi-hit capability, up to large-caliber small arms, such as a sniper rifle," Kong says. It's possible his proposed nanocomposite armor could work against heavier projectiles, too, according to Kong, but such capabilities would require more work and more testing.

Kong's armor would contain layered composite materials made of lightweight metal and ceramic nanoparticles. His team would manufacture these composites with a new, special PNF. Using the existing, general-purpose PNF wouldn't work, because the production of such materials is tricky and cannot tolerate any cross-contamination. Kong thinks the Army will make a decision about his proposal sometime during the current fiscal year.

Cracking heavy hydrocarbons
The PNF does not monopolize Kong's time. He recently signed on as a consultant to a large U.S.-based multinational corporation that wants to use microwave plasma to convert coal to liquid fuels such as gasoline and diesel. Kong brings a wealth of experience to the project. In the 1990s, he developed several plasma technologies to process hard-to-refine very heavy hydrocarbons, such as heavy crude oil, oil sands and oil shale. His methods activated natural gas into plasma, producing large amounts of hydrogen and super-reactive molecules called radicals. The radicals "cracked" heavy hydrocarbon molecules into lighter and shorter fragments, which then combined with the radicals and hydrogen atoms to form usable transportation fuels. Industry showed little interest in the technologies at the time, he says, because light, sweet crude — which is easier to process — was still abundant and cheap.

link to heavy hydrocarbon graph
Processing raw vacuum gas oil's heavy hydrocarbons into transportation fuels using traditional methods requires many steps and consumes a great deal of energy.
That's no longer the case. In 2005, an Exxon-Mobil spokesman told The Boston Globe, "All the easy oil and gas in the world has pretty much been found." As a result, oil companies are increasingly turning their attention to heavy hydrocarbons. Finding efficient ways to process them could aid the American push for energy independence. The U.S. has the world's largest deposits of oil shale, by some estimates the equivalent of 2 trillion barrels of oil — enough to last 280 years based on current consumption rates. According to Kong, his plasma technology is simpler and, perhaps, more cost- and energy-efficient than traditional refining processes. Oil companies may yet come calling.

"This technology could revolutionize the entire refinery structure," he says.

Storing hydrogen
Kong is also working with a large multinational chemical company to find better ways to store hydrogen. Hydrogen, many researchers believe, has great potential to power vehicles, appliances and other devices. Further, it could help carry and convert energy generated by intermittent renewable sources like wind and solar, whose production does not always mesh with demand.

Before hydrogen can help wean the world off fossil fuels, however, scientists need to develop efficient ways to store it. Simply putting hydrogen in a tank to power a car or appliance is difficult, because the element is a gas at all but extremely low temperatures (its boiling point is -253 degrees Celsius). Tanks holding enough low-density hydrogen gas to power anything would have to be very large, in many cases prohibitively so. Hydrogen could be liquefied — either by compression or cooling — to bring tank size down, but this would require a great deal of energy and raise safety concerns, as elemental hydrogen is very reactive.

Chemical storage — in which hydrogen is locked into more complex molecules, then released later after exposure to heat and/or catalysts — strikes many scientists as more practical. But current technologies for making such chemical hydrides are complicated and energy-intensive. Kong is using plasma in an attempt to revolutionize the production process.

"The current method of making these complex chemical hydrides is a 13-step process," he says. "What we're working on is potentially a one- to two-step process." Eliminating so many steps involves tricky, difficult and unstable reactions, and Kong and his team are still working out the details.

The future
Kong is the first INL scientist to secure at least 20 patents. He has "about 26"—it must be hard to keep track when the numbers get so high—with several more pending. He was INL's Inventor of the Year in 2005, and the lab inducted him into its Hall of Fame in Inventorship in 2003. He has dedicated much of his career to plasma research, and a good deal of his success stems from his understanding of plasma's potential. Yet he feels there's a lot more to do, a lot more to learn.

"I think I'll be working with plasma until the day I retire," he says.

####

For more information, please click here

Copyright © Idaho National Laboratory

If you have a comment, please Contact us.

Issuers of news releases, not 7th Wave, Inc. or Nanotechnology Now, are solely responsible for the accuracy of the content.

Bookmark:
Delicious Digg Newsvine Google Yahoo Reddit Magnoliacom Furl Facebook

Related News Press

News and information

Conductive Inks: booming to $2.8 billion by 2024 April 17th, 2014

High-temperature plasmonics eyed for solar, computer innovation April 17th, 2014

INSCX™ exchange to present Exchange trade reporting mechanism for engineered nanomaterials (NMs) to UK regulation agencies, insurers and upstream/downstream users April 17th, 2014

Transparent Conductive Films and Sensors Are Hot Segments in Printed Electronics: Start-ups in these fields show above-average momentum, while companies working on emissive displays such as OLED are fading, Lux Research says April 17th, 2014

Laboratories

Scientists Capture Ultrafast Snapshots of Light-Driven Superconductivity: X-rays reveal how rapidly vanishing 'charge stripes' may be behind laser-induced high-temperature superconductivity April 16th, 2014

'Life Redesigned: The Emergence of Synthetic Biology' Lecture at Brookhaven Lab on Wednesday, April 30: Biomedical Engineer James Collins to Speak for BSA Distinguished Lecture Series April 16th, 2014

Relieving electric vehicle range anxiety with improved batteries: Lithium-sulfur batteries last longer with nanomaterial-packed cathode April 16th, 2014

Energy Research Facility Construction Project at Brookhaven Lab Wins U.S. Energy Secretary's Achievement Award April 16th, 2014

Discoveries

Novel stapled peptide nanoparticle combination prevents RSV infection, study finds April 17th, 2014

Thinnest feasible membrane produced April 17th, 2014

More effective kidney stone treatment, from the macroscopic to the nanoscale April 17th, 2014

High-temperature plasmonics eyed for solar, computer innovation April 17th, 2014

Materials/Metamaterials

Thinnest feasible membrane produced April 17th, 2014

INSCX™ exchange to present Exchange trade reporting mechanism for engineered nanomaterials (NMs) to UK regulation agencies, insurers and upstream/downstream users April 17th, 2014

Engineers develop new materials for hydrogen storage April 15th, 2014

Industrial Nanotech, Inc. Lands First Major Order from Pemex, Mexico’s State-Owned Oil and Gas Company April 14th, 2014

Announcements

More effective kidney stone treatment, from the macroscopic to the nanoscale April 17th, 2014

High-temperature plasmonics eyed for solar, computer innovation April 17th, 2014

INSCX™ exchange to present Exchange trade reporting mechanism for engineered nanomaterials (NMs) to UK regulation agencies, insurers and upstream/downstream users April 17th, 2014

Transparent Conductive Films and Sensors Are Hot Segments in Printed Electronics: Start-ups in these fields show above-average momentum, while companies working on emissive displays such as OLED are fading, Lux Research says April 17th, 2014

Energy

High-temperature plasmonics eyed for solar, computer innovation April 17th, 2014

Scientists Capture Ultrafast Snapshots of Light-Driven Superconductivity: X-rays reveal how rapidly vanishing 'charge stripes' may be behind laser-induced high-temperature superconductivity April 16th, 2014

Engineers develop new materials for hydrogen storage April 15th, 2014

A molecular approach to solar power: Switchable material could harness the power of the sun — even when it’s not shining April 15th, 2014

NanoNews-Digest
The latest news from around the world, FREE







  Premium Products
NanoNews-Custom
Only the news you want to read!
 Learn More
NanoTech-Transfer
University Technology Transfer & Patents
 Learn More
NanoStrategies
Full-service, expert consulting
 Learn More














ASP
Nanotechnology Now Featured Books




NNN

The Hunger Project







© Copyright 1999-2014 7th Wave, Inc. All Rights Reserved PRIVACY POLICY :: CONTACT US :: STATS :: SITE MAP :: ADVERTISE