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Groundbreaking materials from colloids—substances made of microscopic solid particles suspended in liquid—may revolutionize the U.S. Navy’s next generation of high-performance materials technology. 

Roseanna Zia: New Materials, New Applications

June 19, 2014

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Groundbreaking materials from colloids—substances made of microscopic solid particles suspended in liquid—may revolutionize the U.S. Navy’s next generation of high-performance materials technology.

Faculty fellow Roseanna Zia (Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering) recently received a prestigious Office of Naval Research Young Investigator award to define the structure of colloidal fluids and learn to predict their behavior. Funded for more than half a million dollars over three years, Zia’s project may lead to cutting-edge materials that can change their physical properties to match their surroundings—for example, injectable solids for damage repair or injectable nanosensors that can flow into a system to diagnose problems and then fix them with a simple fluid change.

“This work directly supports the Navy’s goal to create novel materials that are at the forefront of science,” Zia explained. “The research could transform many materials of naval relevance—particularly responsive and reconfigurable materials for use in dangerous or difficult-to-reach targets.”

Zia arrived at Cornell as a new assistant professor in January 2013, with an Academic Venture Fund (AVF) grant from the Atkinson Center already in hand. Her team’s ongoing AVF project takes on a persistent problem in the extraction process used to turn algae into liquid biofuel: how to remove excess water without using more energy than is harvested.

Results from Zia’s lab are very promising. Using computer models and experimental methods, the team has identified types of algae and physical conditions that work together to make the algae separate and sink using gravity alone, Zia reported, “successfully avoiding the use of outside energy sources.” The key to this practical process is understanding how gravity moves the algae and how the algae particles interact with one another—the colloid’s structure and behavior. The AVF team’s advance could help algal biofuels achieve their full commercial and environmental potential.