When Ohio University Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering Wojciech Jadwisienczak offered Matt Weaver a spot on one of his nanoengineering research teams at the Russ College of Engineering and Technology two years ago, the sophomore could not have guessed at the doors the chance could open.
After spending nearly a year immersing himself in the intricacies of current nano-engineering research on top of his regular studies, the investment has paid off in experience as well as recognition for Weaver, now a senior electrical engineering major – and a two-time NASA fellowship recipient.
“All of this experience and recognition coming together thus far has lead me to be able to explore opportunities in fields I hadn’t imagined possible when I came into the Electrical Engineering program here at Ohio University my freshman year,” he said.
In addition to earning NASA’s prestigious Space Technology Research Fellowship as a junior, Weaver was awarded the fellowship for a second time this summer after presenting his group’s research findings in April at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. The award is reserved for students who show significant potential to contribute to NASA’s goal of creating innovative new space technologies for the nation’s science, exploration and economic future.
“Being recognized by NASA is pretty inexplicable,” he said. “You grow up hearing that only the best and brightest of individuals are even affiliated with NASA and being able to be a part of what they do is nothing short of amazing.”
In Jadwisienczak’s lab, Weaver is helping develop a new phosphor – a boron nitride-based nanomaterial – that will produce ultraviolet (UV) light to treat, among other applications, potable water and wastewater. The light disrupts the DNA of bacteria and viruses, preventing reproduction – without the use of mercury-base lamp generating UV radiation. In principle, this deep UV light, also called UV-C, can treat water in the same manner as chlorination, but without the residual and potentially harmful chemicals of chlorination.
The group is also investigating an efficient, cost-effective way to produce the boron nitride-based light sources.
NASA was particularly interested in supporting Weaver’s work because mercury, a known neurotoxin, presents unique challenges in space, where astronauts need to recycle their wastewater to produce clean, potable water for human consumption.
“Mercury lamps are problematic to use in terrestrial spaces as well as in deep space,” Weaver said. For example, if a mercury-based UV lamp broke, the released mercury could be lethal to people who are exposed. “This research helps human space exploration and also may bring alternative water purification technology to third-world countries.”
To produce the new phosphor, boron nitride is mechanically ground to a nanomaterial size that is then mixed with the solvent ethanol to produce a boron “ink” which is then heated convert it into a highly crystalline boron nitride nanomaterial that produces UV light in the C band, the frequency of UV light that kills germs.
The group is also identifying how effectively this ink can be coated onto a substrate material, and which substrate is best-suited for developing the mercury-free, completely solid-state, deep-UV-emitting lamp application.
Weaver’s work on the boron nitride phosphor doubles as his capstone senior design project, for which he serves as team captain.
“We are hoping to gain needed experience and finalize the synthesis procedure of the material and move on to testing,” Weaver said of this year’s team goals. “Then, we’ll hopefully prototype a device.”
Jadwisienczak noted that Weaver’s responsibilities include much more than just hands-on work in the lab – he is moving toward the theoretical aspects of energy transfer, a key step in designing plug-in type devices such as a refrigerator light that would sterilize food.
“I invited Matt to work on this project because in addition to his traits of curiosity, eloquence and a hard work ethic, he is capable of linking the practical aspects of materials research with the theoretical constraints of device engineering,” Jadwisienczak said. “I anticipate his independent work as well as his leadership will culminate in achieving the project goals before he graduates,” he added.
Weaver will present an update on the project’s research progress in April at the Glenn Research Center. After that, Weaver said his opportunities after graduation in May 2014 are wide open thanks to the hands-on experience he’s gained on Jadwisienczak’s team and his two summers as a controls systems engineering intern at Rovisys outside Cleveland.
“Nanoengineering is the way of the future,” Weaver said. “Having the chance to do research in such a rapidly growing field of engineering not only allows me some interesting and exciting career windows, but also displays to potential employers that I’m a quick and eager learner.”