New surface analysis to pave way for greener solutions – University of Copenhagen

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12 October 2015

New surface analysis to pave way for greener solutions

Chemical analysis

Removing poisons from the water table: That sounds like a green solution. Understanding how hazardous substances move through soil: That sounds like a green solution. Developing more efficient ways to extract crude oil from underground reservoirs… Doesn’t sound very green, but it is. And a brand new instrument is now set up to accelerate University of Copenhagen research into all three fields.

Tue Hassenkam is an associate Professor at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. He is a researcher in the section NanoGeoScience headed by Professor Susan Stipp. Like the rest of the group he wants to understand why oil sticks to its underground reservoirs, and to use that understanding to develop more efficient oil recovery. He has no doubt that his research will prove beneficial to the environment.

"Wind, water and solar power will not be able to replace oil for several years to come. Right now a lot of oil companies are eying some very fragile areas in arctic regions, but if we can help them keep existing fields productive, we just might avoid dangerous experiments in these delicate regions!

Tue Hassenkam

Associate Professor

Department of Chemistry

University of Copenhagen

“Wind, water and solar power will not be able to replace oil for several years to come. Right now a lot of oil companies are eying some very fragile areas in arctic regions, but if we can help them keep existing fields productive, we just might avoid dangerous experiments in these delicate regions”, says Hassenkam, who does however point out, that the insights he generates are also bound to be useful for decontaminating soil and water.

When high tech goes green

In order to find these green solutions Hassenkam has recently purchased an extremely advanced instrument for the NanoGeoScience section: A NanoIR2 from the company Anasys. In just one procedure the instrument measures the structure of a surface and analyzes its chemical composition in scales as small as 50 nanometers. At that scale it is possible to distinguish such things as single proteins on the surface of a cell. Tue Hassenkam is responsible for the new instrument and the knowledge that it is certain to generate. He is keen to emphasize that he hopes to see researchers from the entire Department use the instrument whenever they need to take a closer look at the chemistry of surfaces.

Dirty surfaces unveiled

You would be forgiven for thinking that a surface is a surface. That gold has a golden surface and carbon is carbon inside out. But in nature the truth is more complex. Even a dry and clean surface is inevitably covered by very small but very tenacious particles. Somewhat like the dust you try to remove from your television screen. The particles can be just about anything at all, they will stay put even under running water and their composition is crucial to how the surface will interact with other substances, explains Tue Hassenkam.

“Nature is rarely clean. In order to understand how a surface in nature will perform it is crucially important to uncover the chemical composition of the very outermost layers”, says Hassenkam.

Fusing technologies gives new abilities

The new instrument is really a combination of two well-known technologies. One is Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) where the shape or structure of the surface is uncovered by running an extremely thin needle over it. The other is infrared spectroscopy which analyzes chemical compounds by bombarding them with various wavelengths of light. Different chemical bonds react to different wavelengths, so observing the reaction tells you exactly which chemicals you have been shining your light on.

Remedying blobbology and destruction

By combining the two technologies the instrument remedies weaknesses of both. AFM research has a scornful reputation as “Blobbology” because it can be difficult to identify materials simply by looking at shapeless blobs on a surface. IR spectroscopy on the other hand suffers from the weakness that you need to pulverize a sample in order to get a reading.

"we can “read” a surface, pour some substance over it and then read it again to see what changed!

Tue Hassenkam

Associate Professor

Department of Chemistry

University of Copenhagen

“NanoIR2 I s non-destructive. This means that we can “read” a surface, pour some substance over it and then read it again to see what changed”, says Tue Hassenkam and goes on: “We want to understand how oil, pesticides and all kinds of other compounds interact with various surfaces. That’s why this is such a crucial capacity.

A competitive edge for the research

Very few universities in the world have been able to get hold of the sensitive instrument, so Hassenkam is certain that NanoGeoScience is set to be first with a number of research results. The purchase has been made possible through a generous donation of 2,6 million DKK from BP. Consequently the first tasks for the instrument will be oil related but Hassenkam urges other groups to suggest other uses.

“We believe in collaboration, so we are very open for the instrument to be used in other projects where the unique information from NanoIR could make a difference. This might be in collaboration with other nano researchers at UCPH, with chemists, geologist or biologists or with researchers from other universities, other countries or from industry”, says Associate Professor Tue Hassenkam.