A molecular engineer, Julia Ortony performs a contemporary version of alchemy.
“I take powder made up of disorganized, tiny molecules, and after mixing it up with water, the material in the solution zips itself up into threads 5 nanometers thick — about 100 times smaller than the wavelength of visible light,” says Ortony, the Finmeccanica Career Development Assistant Professor of Engineering in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE). “Every time we make one of these nanofibers, I am amazed to see it.”
But for Ortony, the fascination doesn’t simply concern the way these novel structures self-assemble, a product of the interaction between a powder’s molecular geometry and water. She is plumbing the potential of these nanomaterials for use in renewable energy and environmental remediation technologies, including promising new approaches to water purification and the photocatalytic production of fuel.
Tuning molecular properties
Ortony’s current research agenda emerged from a decade of work into the behavior of a class of carbon-based molecular materials that can range from liquid to solid.
During doctoral work at the University of California at Santa Barbara, she used magnetic resonance (MR) spectroscopy to make spatially precise measurements of atomic movement within molecules, and of the interactions between molecules. At Northwestern University, where she was a postdoc, Ortony focused this tool on self-assembling nanomaterials that were biologically based, in research aimed at potential biomedical applications such as cell scaffolding and regenerative medicine.
“With MR spectroscopy, I investigated how atoms move and jiggle within an assembled nanostructure,” she says. Her research revealed that the surface of the nanofiber acted like a viscous liquid, but as one probed further inward, it behaved like a solid. Through molecular design, it became possible to tune the speed at which molecules that make up a nanofiber move.
A door had opened for Ortony. “We can now use state-of-matter as a knob to tune nanofiber properties,” she says. “For the first time, we can design self-assembling nanostructures, using slow or fast internal molecular dynamics to determine their key behaviors.”
Slowing down the dance
When she arrived at MIT in 2015, Ortony was determined to tame and train molecules for nonbiological applications of self-assembling “soft” materials.
“Self-assembling molecules tend to be very dynamic, where they dance around each other, jiggling all the time and coming and going from their assembly,” she explains. “But we noticed that when molecules stick strongly to each other, their dynamics get slow, and their behavior is quite tunable.” The challenge, though, was to synthesize nanostructures in nonbiological molecules that could achieve these strong interactions.
“My hypothesis coming to MIT was that if we could tune the dynamics of small molecules in water and really slow them down, we should be able to make self-assembled nanofibers that behave like a solid and are viable outside of water,” says Ortony.
Her efforts to understand and control such materials are now starting to pay off.
“We’ve developed unique, molecular nanostructures that self-assemble, are stable in both water and air, and — since they’re so tiny — have extremely high surface areas,” she says. Since the nanostructure surface is where chemical interactions with other substances take place, Ortony has leapt to exploit this feature of her creations — focusing in particular on their potential in environmental and energy applications.
Clean water and fuel from sunlight
One key venture, supported by Ortony’s Professor Amar G. Bose Fellowship, involves water purification. The problem of toxin-laden drinking water affects tens of millions of people in underdeveloped nations. Ortony’s research group is developing nanofibers that can grab deadly metals such as arsenic out of such water. The chemical groups she attaches to nanofibers are strong, stable in air, and in recent tests “remove all arsenic down to low, nearly undetectable levels,” says Ortony.
She believes an inexpensive textile made from nanofibers would be a welcome alternative to the large, expensive filtration systems currently deployed in places like Bangladesh, where arsenic-tainted water poses dire threats to large populations.
“Moving forward, we would like to chelate arsenic, lead, or any environmental contaminant from water using a solid textile fabric made from these fibers,” she says.
In another research thrust, Ortony says, “My dream is to make chemical fuels from solar energy.” Her lab is designing nanostructures with molecules that act as antennas for sunlight. These structures, exposed to and energized by light, interact with a catalyst in water to reduce carbon dioxide to different gases that could be captured for use as fuel.
In recent studies, the Ortony lab found that it is possible to design these catalytic nanostructure systems to be stable in water under ultraviolet irradiation for long periods of time. “We tuned our nanomaterial so that it did not break down, which is essential for a photocatalytic system,” says Ortony.
Students dive in
While Ortony’s technologies are still in the earliest stages, her approach to problems of energy and the environment are already drawing student enthusiasts.
Dae-Yoon Kim, a postdoc in the Ortony lab, won the 2018 Glenn H. Brown Prize from the International Liquid Crystal Society for his work on synthesized photo-responsive materials and started a tenure track position at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology this fall. Ortony also mentors Ty Christoff-Tempesta, a DMSE doctoral candidate, who was recently awarded a Martin Fellowship for Sustainability. Christoff-Tempesta hopes to design nanoscale fibers that assemble and disassemble in water to create environmentally sustainable materials. And Cynthia Lo ’18 won a best-senior-thesis award for work with Ortony on nanostructures that interact with light and self-assemble in water, work that will soon be published. She is “my superstar MIT Energy Initiative UROP [undergraduate researcher],” says Ortony.
Ortony hopes to share her sense of wonder about materials science not just with students in her group, but also with those in her classes. “When I was an undergraduate, I was blown away at the sheer ability to make a molecule and confirm its structure,” she says. With her new lab-based course for grad students — 3.65 (Soft Matter Characterization) — Ortony says she can teach about “all the interests that drive my research.”
While she is passionate about using her discoveries to solve critical problems, she remains entranced by the beauty she finds pursuing chemistry. Fascinated by science starting in childhood, Ortony says she sought out every available class in chemistry, “learning everything from beginning to end, and discovering that I loved organic and physical chemistry, and molecules in general.”
Today, she says, she finds joy working with her “creative, resourceful, and motivated” students. She celebrates with them “when experiments confirm hypotheses, and it’s a breakthrough and it’s thrilling,” and reassures them “when they come with a problem, and I can let them know it will be thrilling soon.”
This article appears in the Autumn 2019 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative.