MU professor recieves grant for patent

Ryan Woerner
Sports Editor

Alexandra Blessing
Contributing Writer

Millersville University professor of applied engineering, safety and technology Mark Atwater has been making a splash in the scientific community of late with his research on carbon nanofibers.

On August 1, the National Science Foundation awarded Atwater more than $290,000 to study how carbon is deposited from gas.

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This news comes on the heels of the announcement in late March that Atwater received a patent for a technology he co-invented in the field of nanofibrous carbon components.

If you’re well-versed in the ideas of carbon fiber foam composites and creating nanofibrous carbon components, this news will be pleasing to read. If you’re (understandably) lost, allow Atwater to explain.

Displayed are nanofibers that “grow” until they fill a mold.
Displayed are nanofibers that “grow” until they fill a mold.

“The invention is a process to create bulk components from nanoscale fibers,” Atwater said. If you’re still not following exactly what Atwater’s invention does, consider a comparison to help clear things up a little more.

“The process itself is similar to what happens in your car’s exhaust, specifically the catalytic converter,” Atwater said. “The catalytic converter takes gases coming from the engine that may be harmful and converts them to different gases that are less problematic. The patented process involves flowing a carbon-containing gas over a catalyst, but instead of changing it to another gas, the carbon is deposited in the form of fibers…the carbon is controlled and …the fibers “grow” until they fill the mold. After the mold has been filled and the millions of individual fibers are entangled, the carbon acts a single component, similar to steel wool. No one had yet developed a method for creating bulk [visible and useful] components from these fibers directly during the growth process,” Atwater explained.

After spending countless hours in the observation stage while doing graduate work at the University of New Mexico, Atwater worked for four years on growing the nanofibers in hopes of studying their properties.

“I figured that if I enclosed them on all sides, they might stick together better,” Atwater said. “I took some discarded equipment in the lab to create a quick, cheap way of testing that hypothesis. It worked.”

He worked alongside his thesis advisor, Dr. Zayd Leseman, and a co-advisor from Los Alamos National Laboratory, Dr. Jonathan Phillips, to develop the technology and get the resulting patent. Atwater and his associates received a notice on March 25 that patent for their technology was approved.

“Honestly, I feel relieved,” Atwater said, at the time of the accomplishment.

Though receiving the patent itself was quite an accomplishment, Atwater was far from finished with his work on carbon nanofibers.

The three-year grant Atwater received will go towards the his research on the project “Multi-Scale Analysis of Catalytically Grown Carbon Nanofibers and Bulk Components.” The funding will allow Atwater to study the way carbon nanofibers form.

Students from Millersville’s applied engineering and chemistry departments will assist in Atwater’s research. This project will provide an opportunity for independent study and honors thesis work.

“I hope to employ at least three undergraduate students during the grant and serve as a mentor for other students who wish to complete independent study or honors thesis work,” Atwater said.

The ability to directly produce a custom, carbon nanofiber product may allow new advances in composites, hydrogen storage, and air and water filtration.

“The smaller these fibers are, the greater their specific strength gets,” Atwater explained about composites. For filtration, the small fibers can fit together with smaller gaps to restrict fine particles from passing. “The material can be used in normal filtration applications, like a Brita filter, that uses activated carbon,” Atwater said.