Putting the Sci-Fi in Science
It sounds like science fiction: The U.S. Army charging across the battlefield, wearing body armor that makes it invisible to the enemy. Yet Aleksey Ruditskiy says that might be possible with the right assembly of nanocrystals and the presence of an electrical field.
“We all like science fiction around here,” says Ruditskiy (Macaulay Honors College at City College of New York, B.E. in chemical engineering, 2012), who is working toward a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology. He adds with a laugh, “It’s how we get our ideas.”
Ruditskiy will pursue his research, which also has what he calls “more mundane applications, like seals for doors on a ship that can compress and decompress by flipping a switch,” with a 2013 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. This three-year, $126,000 award is the most prestigious grant for graduate research in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
“We’re trying to develop an environmentally responsive material in a liquid form,” he says. “When you apply voltage, the constituent nanoscopic pieces will arrange themselves together in a very ordered way to produce specific effects – to make the material tougher, allow it to stretch or twist or even turn invisible.”
He is studying in the laboratory of professor Younan Xia, the Brock Family Chair and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Nanomedicine, who holds joint appointments in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.
“Our group is working on developing nanocrystals for medicine, for catalysis, for fuel cells and more,” Ruditskiy says.
Born in Minsk, Belarus, he and his family moved to New York City as refugees in 2002, when he was 11.
“My mother and father were both engineers who got degrees in the Soviet Union,” he says. “I showed interest in encyclopedias, so they bought them, and I read them. They let me do what I wanted to do.”
At City College, he worked with teachers like associate professor Ilona Kretzschmar, who supervised his work on the electromagnetic assembly of Janus particles for nearly four years. (Janus nanoparticles have unique surfaces that allow them to function with two different types of chemistry, such as both attracting and repelling water.)
During two successive summers, Ruditskiy participated in a National Science Foundation-funded Partnerships for Research and Education in Materials program at the University of Chicago, working with the group of associate professor Dmitri Talapin, one of the pioneers in the field of colloidal synthesis of inorganic nanostructures.
(In a colloid, small particles are dispersed within a medium that prevents them from settling rapidly; think of fruit in a bowl of unjelled Jell-O. In this case, the synthesis involved inducing exquisitely small nanoparticles to assemble themselves into a desired composition, size, shape and, in a multicomponent structure, connectivity.) “They got me hooked in the field,” he says.
Ruditskiy intends to stay in academia and pursue a professorship. “There are a lot of restrictions in industry; you work on what you’re told,” he says. “But in academia, you have a lot of freedom to pursue something that pops into your head, and I enjoy that.”