Czech scientist helps discover new properties of nanocrystals to tackle climate change

Photo: Czech Television

Nanocrystals of titanium dioxide could be used to transform carbon dioxide into fuel and help in the fight against climate change. The discovery was made with the input of Eliška Materna Mikmeková from the Czech Academy of Sciences, who has been working with a team from Rutgers University that is developing the new nanoparticles.

At first, it may sound like just another molecule, but titanium dioxide is actually an ever present component of daily life, says Eliška Materna Mikmeková, a scientist at the Czech Academy of Sciences who specialises in microscopy.

“We can say that nanoparticles of titanium dioxide are some of the most commonly used nanomaterials in practical life, for example in sunscreen. When eating, you also tend to also ingest nanoparticles of titanium dioxide, because it is used in white pigment.

“Few people know that it is also a very important particle in chemical reactions.”

Mikmeková works at the Institute of Scientific Instruments in Brno which was recently visited by Teddy Yusuf, the leader of a team at Rutgers University in the United States that is working on developing new types of titanium dioxide nanocrystals.

Eliška Materna Mikmeková,  photo: archive of Czech Academy of Sciences

The two scientists inspected the properties of these chemical compounds and made an interesting discovery, says Mikmeková.

“Usually, when you change the size of nanocrystals, it tends to change their properties a lot. When we were going down in size we discovered that the electronic properties of titanium dioxide nanoparticles do indeed change substantially.

“Using electro-microscopy we found that, while the charges on particles normally become permanent during the electron irradiation process, when titanium dioxide gets so small it starts blinking.  You can initialize an on/off process which takes about 15 seconds. We can say this is very exotic for nanoparticles in general.”

The Rutgers University team quickly began considering how this exciting new property could be put to use.

After studying the phenomenon for another year, they published an article in the prestigious journal Angewandte Chemie this summer, where they write that these ‘blinking’ crystals could be used to convert carbon dioxide, a key cause of climate change, into fuels such as methane.

It is hoped that titanium dioxide nanocrystals could thus serve as an effective photo catalyst to accelerate the natural decomposition of some substances by light.

Another possible use of the nanocrystal is in the development of quantum computers, the scientists suggest, because these particles can stay charged for a long time.

Although she is not a part of Rutgers University, it seems that Eliška Mikmeková will remain involved in the project for at least the near future.

“Unfortunately the Rutgers University laboratories are closed due to the coronavirus epidemiological situation in the US, so now we are working mostly here [in Brno].

“Teddy is working on the patent protection, which is good news. There is already a patent in the US for it.

“We are also working on a spin-off, which we would like to create for commercial production.”