How three Clemson scientists translate chemistry research into real-world solutions

Chemistry touches every aspect of everyday life, from the air we breathe and the food we eat to the cars we drive and the products we use.

This week is National Chemistry Week, an event sponsored by the American Chemical Society to highlight the importance of chemistry.

This year’s theme is “Exquisite Fibers: The Chemistry of Fabrics”. To celebrate, Clemson University’s College of Science is highlighting three faculty members whose research relates to the use of different fibers.

A man wearing goggles and a blue lab coat works with a green-light machine in a lab
Chemistry professor George Chumanoff helped a car upholstery manufacturer determine why its fabric fades when the car is parked in the sun in dealerships.

Colors disappear

Clemson chemistry professor George Chumanoff and his colleagues turned detectives of sorts when an auto upholstery manufacturer called for help. The fabric of the car seats suddenly began to fade as the sun hit the cars parked in the dealerships.

“It’s all about chemistry,” said Chumanov. “What happens when a fabric fades is that the dye molecules break down. The molecules break up and the color disappears. Photobleaching happens every minute. You can’t prevent it. The question is how to reduce and control it.”

One of Chumanov’s areas of expertise is photophysics – the physics of light and its interaction with matter.

Shot in the head by George Chumanov
George Chumanov

“It immediately became clear to us that the problem had something to do with the manufacturing process, and that they had inevitably changed something that ultimately caused the fabric to be less stable,” he said.

Knowing the basics of photolysis is just the first step. “Translating these basics into the real cause is much more complex,” Chumanov said.

Besides sunlight, factors such as oxygen levels, humidity, and temperature can affect fabric and dye molecules.

Here, Chumanov’s lab, Department of Chemistry lecturer Rakesh Sachdeva, and specialists from the manufacturer used a variety of tools—including chemical, optical, and mass spectrometry—to detect how the properties of dyes and fabrics change before and after fading for precise determination. Causes of the problem.

“I’ve learned to appreciate the complexity of real-world situations. It’s often very difficult to pinpoint a problem under conditions you don’t have complete control over,” said Chumanov, whose textile research has also included making clothes that repel dirt and making yarns that can produce electricity when exposed to sunlight. .

His current research involves the synthesis and screening of cutting-edge carbon nanofibers.

A man in an orange shirt (Dan Whitehead) stands close to a staircase in a life sciences facility
Daniel Whitehead, Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry, has transformed cotton fibers into nanoparticles that remove environmental pollutants.

removal of contaminants

Thanks to its practicality, comfort and fit, cotton is the most popular fabric in the world. But Daniel Whitehead, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, doesn’t use them to make blue jeans or T-shirts. Instead, it turns cotton fibers into nanoparticles that remove environmental pollutants.

Cotton is about 80 percent cellulose. Whitehead’s lab degrades the amorphous portion of the cotton fiber using a chemical reaction, leaving nanocrystals of cellulose. Between 1,000 and 1,600 nanocrystals can be placed on the surface of a cross-section of a human hair.

The polymer placed on the surface of the nanocrystals reacts with the target contaminant.

Head shot by Dan Whitehead
Daniel Whitehead

Initially, the project targeted the volatile compounds that cause unpleasant odors during the lipid conversion process that separates protein from fat in the leftover parts of animals that we don’t eat for use in pet food. The researchers made a filter cartridge out of the nanoparticles and passed air from the plant through the filter. They found that the filter removes at least 95 percent of odor particles from the air.

Whitehead’s lab has also used the nanoparticles to break down pesticides and remove polyfluorinated surfactants, a persistent environmental pollutant, from the water. The scientists also investigated the use of nanocrystals to remove metallic contaminants from accumulated fats so that they can be refined into renewable fuels.

“What we love about cellulose nanocrystals is that they are so cheap to make because they come from cotton, which is a commodity crop. They are easy to chemically modify after we make them, and they give us a nice, biodegradable platform that we can use for these applications to remove pollutants from the environment,” Whitehead said. We think it’s useful for a wide variety of applications.”

While the lab has shown the material to work in multiple applications on a lab scale, it has yet to prove that it can work on an industrial scale at an affordable price.

“We’ve shown that we can do it with 100 milliliters of fat. What happens if we try to do it with 1,000 pounds of fat? The question is, can we make it affordable enough to put it on the market?” he said.

A man wearing a blue lab coat using a pipette in a lab
Lucas Ayres, a graduate student in the lab of chemistry professor Carlos Garcia, helped solve two challenges in using paper-fiber carbon electrodes in wearable devices that would detect infection.

wearable devices

When most people think of wearables, they likely think of smartwatches, fitness trackers, and wearable monitors that collect information on physical activity, measure blood oxygen saturation levels, detect falls, and even monitor heart rhythms.

The lab of Carlos Garcia, a professor of chemistry at Clemson, is looking into a different kind of wearable device that uses paper fibers (turned into carbon electrodes) to efficiently and inexpensively detect infection or even monitor cancer biomarkers to determine if a treatment is working.

Wearable devices can provide doctors with the information they need to treat a problem.

“More often than not, doctors make a diagnosis based on the best clinical data available,” Garcia said. “We want to provide more data so that diagnoses can be more accurate and ultimately improve clinical outcomes.”

A man in an orange jacket draped around his shoulders leaning on a.  Railroad
Carlos Garcia

Using pyrolysis, paper is heated in the absence of oxygen to temperatures high enough that the cellulose fibers convert to carbon while preserving the three-dimensional structure of the paper.

“You end up with something like spaghetti, and each fiber can conduct electricity and become a chemical sensor,” Garcia said. “This gives us tremendous flexibility in designing these sensors and allows us to measure things that we can’t measure with standard color-based devices.”

Previously, Garcia’s lab had created sensors that measured metabolites, gases, heavy metals, and even bleach.

However, two factors have limited the material’s applicability in wearable applications – fragility and some electrical resistance. But Lucas Ayres, Ph.D. A student in Garcia’s lab, he used a natural polymer to coat the electrodes, making them flexible enough to withstand bending and adding a thin layer of gold to improve electron transfer. In collaboration with Christy Whitehead, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences, they have developed a device that can be attached to the skin and detect the presence of Staphylococcus aureusIt is a commonly misdiagnosed and mistreated pathogen.

“Essentially, Lucas addresses the limitations that apply to many other carbon materials, enabling the development of other sensors. On the application side, this addresses the clinical need for a method to diagnose these infections using a non-invasive, inexpensive system,” Garcia said.

The College of Science strives for excellence in scientific discovery, learning, and engagement that is locally relevant and has a global impact. The life, physical, and mathematical sciences converge to address some of the scientific challenges of the future, and our faculty prepares the next generation of leading scientists. The College of Science offers high-impact, transformative experiences such as research, internships, and study abroad to help prepare our graduates for top industries, graduate programs, and the health professions.

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