Wayne State University

Wayne State researcher receives grant to study nanoconfined water for biological and engineering applications

Detroit - Peter Hoffmann, Ph.D., associate professor of physics in WSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and resident of St. Clair Shores, Mich., received a $365,000 award from the National Science Foundation to study the dynamics of liquid water confined in nanoscale spaces – a topic of broad application and importance to the fields of biology and engineering. The study could give biologists an improved understanding of characteristics of water inside living cells as well as assist engineers in the design of nanoscale-mechanical devices of the future.

“We want to understand what water – arguably the most important liquid on the planet – does in tiny spaces,” Hoffmann said. “This information is important for the understanding of any device where water-based solutions have to flow through nanosized channels, such as those found inside our cells and in future nanodevices.”

Hoffmann plans to investigate how the structure and dynamics of water in nanoconfinement are influenced by the structure and chemical nature of the surface surrounding it. He will also take into account the influence of several variations, such as adding ions, increasing heat, and using microwaves to force the water molecules to rotate.

In the field of biology, information gained from Hoffmann’s study will provide insight on the speed and dynamics of water as it travels through tiny channels in cell membranes. “One aspect of the research is to understand under what circumstances water stays in a fluid state in nanometer spaces and what circumstances it doesn’t,” Hoffmann said. “For example, how do cells make sure that nanoconfined water remains fluid through channels and doesn’t get ‘stuck’?”

Understanding how water behaves in cells is important, Hoffmann said, because most diseases begin at the cellular level. “When scientists try to figure out how cells work, water is often taken for granted. But water plays an important role in forming cellular structures and in controlling chemical reactions in cells, so an improved understanding of the dynamics of water within cells has innumerable potential applications.”

The second field of interest for Hoffmann’s research is engineering-based, where the understanding of nanoconfined water is crucial in the design of devices such as fuel cells, which need to expel water that is formed from combining hydrogen and oxygen. The research also will be useful in the building of any nanodevices in which narrow channels feed into tiny chemical sensors or reactors.

Hoffmann’s current NSF award developed from his research group’s pioneering work in the area of nanoconfined fluids, in which they used a novel, ultra-sensitive Atomic Force Microscopy technique, designed and built at WSU. The group has published five papers so far, including a study on the dynamics of OMCTS, a silicone oil, which showed that the liquid behaves in a highly cooperative fashion due to nanoconfinement and can spontaneously turn solid. The findings led to the question of whether water molecules do the same as OMCTS molecules under similar circumstances.

"Dr. Hoffmann's research will lead to a better understanding of the behavior of confined water on nanoscale and its important role in biology and nanotechnology" said Dr. Ratna Naik, chair of physics and astronomy at WSU. "In addition, this project offers Wayne State students unique hands-on research experience in developing state-of-the-art instrumentation working with leading physicists, and ultimately could lead to learning opportunities for middle and high school students."
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Wayne State University is one of the nation’s pre-eminent public research universities in an urban setting, ranking in the top 50 in R & D expenditures of all public universities by the National Science Foundation. Through its multidisciplinary approach to research and education, and its ongoing collaboration with government, industry and other institutions, the university seeks to enhance economic growth and improve the quality of life in the city of Detroit, state of Michigan and throughout the world.