Gas control breakthrough as scientists develop light activated membrane

10 August 2010

A membrane that changes permeability with different colours of light has been developed at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics. The breakthrough by researchers at the New York University could have massive implications for the control of gas flow in industrial processing.

Eric Glowacki, one of the membrane's inventors, is pictured holding the membrane. Credit: University of Rochester
Eric Glowacki, one of the membrane's inventors, is pictured holding the membrane. Credit: University of Rochester

The membrane blocks gas from flowing through it when one colour of light is shined on its surface, and permits gas to flow through when another colour of light is used.

Eric Glowacki, a graduate student at the University's Laboratory for Laser Energetics, and Kenneth Marshall, his advisor, invented the membrane. Marshall presented their findings at the annual conference of the International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE) in San Diego on August 1, 2010.

The membrane is a piece of hard plastic riddled with tiny holes that are filled with liquid crystals and a dye. When purple light illuminates the surface of the membrane, the dye molecules straighten out and the liquid crystals fall into line, which allows gas to easily flow through the holes. But when ultraviolet light illuminates the surface, the dye molecules bend into a banana shape and the liquid crystals scatter into random orientations, clogging the tunnel and blocking gas from penetrating.

Glowacki says that controlling a membrane's permeability with light is preferable to controlling it with commonly used methods such as heat or electricity. Light can operate remotely so, instead of attaching electrical lines to the membrane, a lamp or a laser can be directed at the membrane from a distance. This could allow engineers to make smaller, simpler setups.

Another advantage is that the colour of the light illuminating the membrane can be changed precisely and almost instantaneously. Other methods, like heating and cooling, take a relatively long time and repeated heating and cooling can damage the membrane.
Also, light does not have the potential to ignite a gas, which could be a crucial benefit when working with hydrocarbons or other flammable gases. Lastly, the amount of light energy needed to switch the membrane on and off is minuscule.

Creating the membrane is a multi-step process. First, a circular hard plastic chip is bombarded with a beam of neutrons to make the tiny, evenly spaced holes that are about one-hundredth of a millimetre in diameter. The chip is then dipped in a solution of liquid crystals and dye, and the mixture fills the holes through capillary action. The final product is spun in a centrifuge to remove the excess liquid crystals from the surface.

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