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Boise State and industry partner continue nano ink research for extreme environs

When you come to Boise State, you might expect to hear about potatoes, mountains, maybe gems…but nano inks?

It’s true: nano inks are an important facet of research conducted at Boise State. And now, with a nearly $200,000 award from the Department of Energy Small Business Innovation Research Award program, the university can continue its nano ink development in partnership with the Austin, TX-based business Applied Nanotech, Inc.

Together these two research leaders are creating novel nano inks that can withstand some of the most extreme environments, such as the inside of a nuclear reactor.

Dave Estrada, a faculty member and associate director of the Center for Advanced Energy Studies and one of the center’s Research Scientists, Joshua Eixenberger, partnered with Applied Nanotech, Inc. in 2018 to advance methods for developing and testing nanoparticle inks. With this new award, their research can move to the next level.

As it sounds, nano inks are inks made up of nanoscale (one billionth of a meter) particles for a variety of different kinds of printers. What’s special though is these inks are not exactly your everyday printer inks: they are made up of materials such as molybdenum and niobium. These two materials specifically are compatible with high temperatures and are radiation resistant.

“We are to print thermocouples or sensors to measure the temperatures of materials inside the core of next generation nuclear reactors,” explained Applied Nanotech, Inc. CEO, Richard Fink. “The current sensor materials that are used to make thermocouples are susceptible to neutron activation, which will not work in a nuclear reactor.”

Triple Boise State alum and biomolecular scientist Eixenberger (BS,’13; MS, ‘17; PhD ‘19) is at the forefront of this research, and began with developing a method for making the nanoparticles.

“I’ve been doing nanomaterials synthesis since I started my scientific career as an undergrad,” Eixenberger said. Through his academic and research journey, he has explored his abilities in nanomaterials synthesis for electronic, and therapeutic uses. Now, in this research he is tapping into the manufacturing world.

“Now I’m taking that skill of being able to make materials at the nano scale, characterizing them and then opening up the doors in printed electronics,” he said.

The goal now is to formulate that into an ink that matches the different printer requirements for both aerosol and inkjet printers at the university.

Estrada says that with the new sensor designs and the ability to print directly on surfaces or embed sensors, that this innovation is “futuristic thinking that could open up new applications with the Department of Defense and smart sensing for hypersonic vehicles.”

According to the Department of Energy, Congress established the Small Business Innovation Research Award program in 1982 to support scientific excellence and technological innovation through the investment of Federal research funds in critical American priorities to build a strong national economy.