Really tiny things are a big deal to Jin-Woo Kim. For his work in nanotechnology, he has been named the 2019 Arkansas Biosciences Institute Established Investigator of the Year.
Kim, a professor of biological and agricultural engineering for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture and the University of Arkansas College of Engineering, has spent years developing methods for turning nanoparticles into practical tools for medical, agricultural and manufacturing uses.
Nanoparticles are between 1 and 100 nanometers long, a nanometer being equal to one billionth of a meter.
Kim’s research, funded by grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health, combines multiple nanoscale materials into single, multifunctional structures with defined physical, chemical or biological characteristics that hold promise for advanced materials and devices. Engineering the shape, size and material compositions influences the useful properties of those materials.
Such materials offer valuable applications for biosensing, biosecurity or nanomedicine, as well as advanced uses in optoelectronics and nanophotonics, Kim said.
“The potential applications of these technologies is wide open,” Kim said.
To produce these materials, Kim has been developing nano-building-block technology to guide self-assembly of nanoparticles into specific shapes for specific purposes. He calls it nBlock technology, and it induces nanoparticles to arrange themselves into designed structures.
Now, he is working to expand nBlock technology into more general techniques that can be applied to many different manufacturing designs. He aims to develop a nanotoolbox of assembly methods that are not limited to a single, specific material, but that can be used to produce an unlimited number of different materials.
One of the challenges, Kim said, is scaling up production for manufacturing bulk materials. Self-assembly is a powerful strategy, he said, but the accurate, scalable and high-rate assembly of nanoparticles into specifically designed shapes and sizes is difficult to accomplish.
“Nanotoolbox technology addresses the urgent need for functional, reliable and scalable techniques to fabricate customizable nanostructures for a wide range of uses,” Kim said.
In another project, funded by NSF’s Center for Advanced Surface Engineering, Kim is developing efficient and sustainable technologies to produce cellulosic nanomaterials from woody biomass.
The raw material is essentially waste from timber industries, Kim said. “A report from the Department of Energy indicates that U.S. forestry operations generate 97 million dry tons of waste annually,” he said.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Arkansas produces 4 million dry tons of waste each year.
“If that abundant and cheap raw material can be sustainably and economically converted into value-added products,” Kim said, “it could provide a significant boost to the state’s economy.”
To investigate the potential of waste biomass for nanomaterial uses, Kim is investigating the impact of genetic and environmental influences on the quantity and quality of nanocellulose. These factors can help identify the most suitable cellulose resources in Arkansas for nanoparticle production, he said.
Kim is combining multiple production processes to identify the most efficient and sustainable methods to fabricate nanocellulose.
In his study of manufacturing processes, Kim said he is targeting both low-cost, high-volume and high-cost, low-volume markets by developing processes with options to synthesize cellulose nanomaterials to different degrees of purity.
Materials with high purity are costly to produce and are suitable for medical or electronic industries. Such products might include drug delivery systems or medical diagnosis agents, smart fabrics, sensing or imaging nanomaterials and other high-end technical uses.
Nanomaterials produced with lower purity at lower cost are suitable for such products as packing materials, filters, some construction materials, microbeads and other uses where high purity is not required.
“USDA estimates that the market size of nanocellulose-enabled products will reach 35 million metric tons per year by 2050,” Kim said. “Developing a viable way to fabricate value-added products from cellulosic nanomaterials could propel Arkansas into a new era of forest bio-based production industries,” Kim said. “There’s high potential to advance the state’s manufacturing, agriculture, forestry and healthcare industries.”