Trillions of dollars of technology are based on the crystallization of dissolved molecules into essential materials, such as ceramics, fertilizers, and pharmaceuticals.

That’s on top of the many natural materials — from bones to the Earth’s minerals — formed through crystallization, making it a fundamental part of everyday life.

Crystallization is the focus of F. Marc Michel’s research. With a new five-year, $560,000 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant, Michel, an assistant professor of geosciences with the Virginia Tech College of Science, seeks to advance innovative research on how the smallest minerals, known as nanoparticles, crystallize from their originating solution.

“My research group is developing innovative, real-time approaches for studying nanoparticle growth processes using combinations of laboratory and synchrotron characterization methods,” said Michel, who also is affiliated with the Academy of Integrated Science’s nanoscience program, part of the College of Science.

To do this, the group is designing new types of chemical reactors that can be used to understand dynamic crystallization processes in a wide variety of geochemical systems. The reactors are being fabricated by desktop 3-D printing, making them inexpensive, adaptable, and rapid to manufacture. More vital, the designs can be easily shared among research groups, which should advance crystallization science on a much broader scale, Michel added.

Michel’s research will specifically focus on the growth of nanosized aluminosilicates, which are among the most reactive inorganic constituents in soils and sediments.

“Nanosized aluminosilicates, along with related clay minerals, enhance soil properties by retaining water and plant nutrients,” Michel said. “Due to their large reactive surface area, these nanoparticles also can sequester heavy metals contaminants and pathogens that negatively impact water quality. By knowing how these minerals form at environmental conditions, we can find new ways to further enhance soil fertility and mitigate water pollution.”

F. March Michel with Geosciences x-ray scattering machine

Geosciences  x-ray scattering machine
F. Marc Michel (right) stands with graduate student Karel Kletetschka, of Laurel, Maryland, at a multipurpose X-ray scattering platform machine. The device allows Michel to characterize the atomic structural and physical size and shape properties of solids from crystallization experiments.

New insights into the aluminosilicates could lead to development of novel synthesis methods for new earth-abundant metal catalysts, as well as materials for water treatment and long-term nuclear waste storage. For example, cement-like materials that use aluminsilicate binders in place of ordinary Portland cement are being considered for the solidification and stabilization of radioactive waste.

Aluminosilicate nanoparticles with well-defined shapes, such as tubes, hollow spheres, and plates, also are a promising alternative to carbon-based nanoparticles being used for manufacturing composite materials or gold-based nanoparticles used for targeted drug delivery, such as killing tumors in patients.

“Developing new ways to study mineral growth processes that involve nanoparticle formation and aggregation is a major challenge,” Michel said. “Data generated by my research must be transformed into conceptual models that can be used to explain crystallization pathways and mechanisms.”

As part of the NSF funding, Michel also will provide students, educators, and others with new tools to teach about crystallization. These tools will allow students to develop a deeper appreciation for the importance of crystallization throughout the sciences.

“Among other activities, I will develop and make freely available instructions for using open source crystal structure visualization software and desktop 3-D printing to create handheld 3-D scale models of whole nanoparticle crystal structures,” Michel said.

As part of the NSF-funded project, Michel also will continue to co-organize the College of Science’s annual NanoCamp and the annual NanoEarth Summer School for graduate students, postdocs, and faculty. “These events are wonderful opportunities to engage both students and faculty, especially those from underrepresented groups in STEM fields who are interested in learning more about nanoscience and nanotechnology,” Michel added.

Michel earned a bachelor’s degree in geology in 1998 from Colgate University, and doctorate in geosciences in 2007 from New York’s Stony Brook University. Between degrees, he worked as a hydrogeologist for an environmental consulting company. Before joining Virginia Tech in 2012, he served as a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University and then research associate at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center National Accelerator Laboratory.

Michel also is a co-investigator for the Virginia Tech National Center for Earth and Environmental Nanotechnology Infrastructure, or NanoEarth for short, and is the assistant director of the Virginia Tech Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program.

The CAREER grant is the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award, and it is awarded to creative junior faculty who are expected to become future academic leaders. Michel is one of three College of Science faculty to receive a CAREER Award this year, the first time that three faculty from the college have won such funding in more than 10 years. The other two faculty members are Julianne Chung of the Department of Mathematics and Kendra Sewall of the Department of Biological Sciences.

Written by Jessie Rogers, of Suffolk, Virginia, a senior in the Department of English, part of the College Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

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