Students to present silicon nanomembrane research

March 6, 2018
Students in the lab
Students in the lab
Students in the lab

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – For months, four students from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville have been collaborating on research that can have far-reaching impacts. They will present their research on silicon nanomembranes at the Research in the Rotunda event in Madison, Wisconsin on Wednesday, April 11. Their project titled, “Silicon Nanomembranes: A Technology Platform for Micro and Nanoscale Devices,” will be shared with legislators, state leaders, UW alumni and members of the community.

After learning about this research opportunity, Adam Heuermann, a Washington, Illinois native; Jacob Sina, a St. Louis Park, Minnesota native; and Brandon Wisinski, from Stevens Point, Wisconsin, partnered with Dr. Gokul Gopalakrishnan, assistant professor of engineering physics at UW-Platteville, to build nanomembranes and expand on their applications in the Nano Lab. Recent UW-Platteville graduate Nicholas Hemenway, a Sheboygan, Wisconsin native, was responsible for the computational side of the project.

Made from crystalline silicon, nanomembranes are flexible sheets that are one thousand times thinner than a human hair, yet extremely strong and robust, and can be used to make devices such as microscopic pressure sensors that improve GPS capabilities in smartphones or can be implanted into blood vessels for rapid detection of life-threatening blood pressure changes. While Sina worked on fabricating nanomembranes in a way that is inexpensive but also reduces their size and increases the sensitivity, Heuermann and Wisinski focused on modifying the membranes to create novel versions of a separation technology known as a molecular sieve. The molecular sieve permits the passage of molecules below a certain size in a process that is similar to the way that filter paper traps particles while letting the much smaller water molecules pass through.

“Our main goal is to expand our membranes’ applications by creating tiny and unique openings that are unlike the circular openings present in traditional molecular sieves,” Heuermann said.

By making these controlled nanoscale openings in different shapes, through a process called nanopatterning, a larger range of molecules can be filtered through the membrane. The use of an electron beam allows for the creation of openings that can target the sizes of molecules that are often difficult to filter by other existing methods.

For instance, mycoplasma, a kind of bacteria that can invade cell cultures in biomedical and biochemical labs, are problematic to isolate because they are about one hundred nanometers in size, right in the range of sizes that is difficult to separate. Most commercial filtration stops at two hundred nanometers – filtering smaller species can be expensive and time consuming. Mycoplasma contamination is therefore handled by throwing out entire cell lines, at a significant cost of time and money. The unique geometry of the nanomembrane filters being developed in this project may provide a quick solution to this problem, among several others.

Not only does modification through nanopatterning allow for quicker results, but it also enables a separation of high-aspect ratio species which are traditionally difficult to filter, allows for molecular separation by shape, can help with alignment of carbon nanotubes and more. This research can have widespread influence across a number of fields, from scientific research, to biomedical applications, microchip manufacturing and more.  

According to Gopalakrishnan, much of this research was made possible through various WiSys grants, and he is currently working with WiSys on patent disclosures for the research. Gopalakrishnan also added that this silicon nanomembrane research has led to a grant proposal with Dr. Mark Levenstein, assistant professor of biology, to further nanomembrane research, specifically regarding biomedical applications.

This spring’s Research in the Rotunda event won’t be the first time Sina, Heuermann and Wisinski have presented their research on silicon nanomembranes. In fact, all three students have presented at various symposiums in the past and are appreciative of the learning opportunities they have received.

“I have enjoyed working on this research,” Wisinski said. “Not only is it an interesting topic, but it gives us a chance to take what we’ve learned in class and apply it to a real-world project.”

“I have learned a lot in the time I’ve been working on this project,” added Sina. “I enjoy what I’m doing and it’s nice seeing real results.”

Each year, more than 100 student researchers from across the UW System, together with their faculty advisors, fill the Capitol Rotunda to share their research findings and creative projects. For more information about the event, visit www.wisconsin.edu/research-in-the-rotunda.

Written by: Amanda Bertolozzi, Writer/Editor, Communications, 608-342-7121, bertolozzia@uwplatt.edu

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