Barrett's microfilter.
Each hole of Barrett’s filter is one tenth the circumference of a hair.
Lawrence Barrett at Innovation Idol.

Nanotechnology Idol as an Undergrad?!

January 29, 2013

There Lawrence was—a junior studying physics at BYU competing against PhD students and a CEO.

Last October, Lawrence Barrett presented a project he and others have been working on at the nanoUtah Innovation Idol competition. Barrett and his team had created a nickel microfilter using a unique process designed by researchers in the physics department at BYU.

“Lawrence was able to tell a compelling story about the business prospects and the technology itself and its unique fit,” said Dr. Robert Davis, physics professor at BYU who helped Barrett with his nanotechnology research.

The audience at Innovation Idol liked Barrett’s story and chose him to be Utah’s 2012 Innovation Idol.

The microfilter Barrett helped fabricate can filter both gas and liquid with some biofuel possibilities, potentially using less energy to remove yeast from ethanol. The difference in Barrett’s microfilter lies in the structure and fabrication of the filter.

Most filters are created by smashing tiny orbs into a random sequence, creating a porous haphazard design. The physics department designs a filter with tiny holes of equal size that are evenly spaced throughout the filter, not randomly spaced and sized like their counterparts.

Affordable filters with uniform microscopic holes have been created before, but usually only as a very thin and fragile layer. Microfabrication engineers outside of BYU currently use expensive methods to create three-dimensional structures with more depth. These costly methods cannot be applied to metals successfully.

A cheaper method created by the BYU physics department using nanotechnology allows for height and depth on a microscopic level, and it can be done with metals.

“This fabrication process, we’re the only ones really driving that,” Dr. Davis said.

The physics research team starts the fabrication process by creating a two-dimensional layer of iron then uses that iron as a catalyst for upward growth. They blow extremely hot ethylene from below, which forms into nanotubes above, growing upward like trees.

Think of the thin layer of iron as a seed layer for a forest. As they blow hot gases beneath this seed layer, the forest grows upward, creating a forest of nanotubes.

The BYU physics department takes this forest of nanotubes and fills them in with other materials, creating a solid three-dimensional structure.

Another physics undergraduate, Andrew Davis, utilized this new fabrication method to create carbon filters. Barrett extended this effort to create filters out of nickel, which he hopes will be even stronger and more durable. He’s thankful for all the help he’s been able to receive on this project as an undergraduate.

“I think that’s one of the things that’s so attractive about BYU as a university is that I had professors and people around campus who just went out of their way so this project could be successful,” Barrett said.

To see the BYU News story about Barrett and more on nanotechnology, see here.

To visit the research group’s website, click here.

—Curtis Penfold, College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences

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