UT researchers create nanocrystal gel with potential in heating and cooling technology


Katy Nelson, News Reporter

A team of UT researchers developed a new type of nanocrystal gel that could be used to better regulate the temperature of buildings. 

The Milliron research group revealed their findings of how nanocrystal gels, which are made up of tiny individual crystalline particles linked together, could act to control cooling and heating in buildings in a study published Feb. 18. Stephanie Valenzuela, who started working on the project as a graduate student, said the team wants to eventually turn the gel into films that could be applied to windows to reflect light when it is hot and to allow light in when it is cold. 

However, she said other researchers may take the information to make other innovations, such as gels to release medicine into the body.

“The nice thing about science is you can take all these things of what people are learning and apply it to your system,” said Valenzuela, an organic chemistry doctoral candidate. “This is one of the first times this has been demonstrated, so we’re in the forefront of this and (we’ll) see where it leads.” 

Jiho Kang, a graduate research assistant with Milliron, said the team altered the gel’s properties for potential use in buildings by changing the number of nanocrystals attached to one another to give the gel elastic properties. 

“I hope our system can be a very valuable addition to one of the very interesting strategies to making nanocrystals,” Kang said. “I think our system is very interesting because it is very reversible without accumulating byproducts.” 

Researchers utilized simulations to see what occurs when the nanocrystals link together to form the gel during its creation. Postdoctoral research fellow Emily Lin said the simulations allowed them to know where individual nanocrystals are at any given moment during the process.

“(The gel is) much easier to control in simulation than it is to control with experiments,” Lin said. “You can even control certain things that experiments cannot, and simulations can provide a more molecular level view into the system that the experiments have to infer.” 

Valenzuela said the next step is to create triggers for the gel that could allow researchers to change the gel’s pH level, which could help the researchers achieve their goal of using the gel in heating and cooling technology.

“Using two separate triggers to form our networks is something we’re working towards,” Valenzuela said. “You could change the pH and have two different networking systems going at once and able to control them.”

Lin said she believes the gel could have a big effect on the world in the future.

“The gel changes color and mechanical property at different temperatures,” Lin said. “So imagine now you can use temperature as a switch to turn on and off certain properties. … That itself is an amazing thing to be able to control.”