In March, several young researchers from Benenden started work on an international project in collaboration with a group of students from Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School, a US Team from North Penn High School and Dr Marcus Johns, a post-doctoral research scientist at the University of British Columbia. Here, Sue Harris, STEM Outreach and Events Coordinator, tells us more.
The project, entitled Nano Quest, is based on evaluating different methods of electrospinning cellulose acetate to form nanofibres. Due to its morphology and characteristic physical properties, cellulose nanofiber is seen as a promising material for use in a wealth of fields, including filter material, packaging material, electronic devices, foods, medicine, cosmetics, and health care.
After a virtual meeting with several research stakeholders, the Benenden team, led by student project managers Ava and Tiffany, alongside myself, started research to assess the effects of changing key variables in the electrospinning process. In addition, the use of different types of co-solvent to dissolve the cellulose before spinning is also being evaluated. Our student team has been instrumental in designing and adapting the spinning apparatus and the formulation and production of the cellulose acetate samples.
The process of electrospinning relies on the electrostatic attraction of a liquid to facilitate the production and drawing of fibres. The process is not a new one; in 1600, the first record of the electrostatic attraction of a liquid was observed by William Gilbert; 300 years later, John Francis Cooley filed the first electrospinning patent. However, the first fibres produced were nowhere near the nanoscale our girls are aiming for today.
To evaluate the effectiveness of our teams’ research to date, we have managed to secure the loan of a scanning electron microscope from the Natural History Museum, allowing the team to assess the fibres produced in greater detail. Fibres on a nanoscale that is a billionth of a meter are impossible to see with the naked eye or a basic microscope.
Currently, we view what we produce using a new A Level microscope and have found fibres as tiny as 1.98 micrometres, but we are out by a factor of 1000! Nevertheless, we are all extremely excited to see if the project has produced the nanofibers we expect.
A Student’s View
When we started the nanofibers project, I didn’t know anything about them; however, the project has encouraged me to research deeper into this aspect of Chemistry outside of my lessons and I have really enjoyed reading different papers from other schools and trying to build on their research using my own experimentation.
After making a solution, I have spent a few weeks trying to produce nanofibres, by electrospinning, with the help of Ms Harris (who has always been very encouraging throughout) and now that we have the SEM, we have managed to photograph some nanofibers!
The process has been quite challenging but, because of this, it is very satisfying when it goes well. I think some of my friends are probably getting tired of me showing them photos of the fibres (but I think are very cool). I am very excited to continue the project, and I would very happily spend my week in the Chemistry Lab if I could!
Sarah, Fifth student