Student researcher Kevin Chiou studies nanoemulsions in Germany

Michael McKenna, Research and Innovations Reporter

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Despite traveling halfway across the world, last summer was not exactly a vacation for Case Western Reserve University junior Kevin Chiou.

Chiou, a polymer science and engineering major, spent three months of his summer vacation working 60 hours a week researching nanoemulsions at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz, Germany.

On a basic level, nanoemulsions are liquid-liquid suspensions in which one substance organizes itself into droplets at the nanoscale level. The science works with manipulating the organization, size, and distribution of these structures, among other things. One area in which nanoemulsions have shown utility is in the healthcare industry, since the particle can be used to deliver drugs to specific viruses without harming other cells. Chiou was looking to create this material in order to find ways to use it for optimal energy storage.

Despite having previous research experience from his first two years at CWRU, Chiou’s project got off to a rocky start in Germany.

“My idea behind nanoemulsions was completely bogus,” Chiou said with a laugh. “After my first meeting with Dr. Katharina Landfester, [professor of physical chemistry of polymers at Max Planck], she just looked at me and said that the project was impossible and that I should go back home and think it over. But I needed a project, so I went and picked up one of theirs.”

Chiou had originally planned to create nanocapsules by using phase transition materials in the nanoscale. To create the shell for the capsule, though, he needed to heat the material to a high temperature. Unfortunately, this would cause the capsules to melt together.

Despite the initial setback, Chiou did not give up on his project. While working on the new research, Chiou set out to reform his original idea. His second method also did not work. The third time was not the charm, either.

“After two different methods, I thought, ‘What if I make the capsules first, put the things inside them, and then seal it?’” Chiou said. “That didn’t work either.”

But still Chiou persisted. In the end, his background in polymers allowed him to complete his project.

“Polymers transform in a way different than molecular material,” Chiou said.

“Molecular material starts melting at a certain temperature, but during that phase transition, the temperature remains the same. In polymers, on the other hand, the class transition temperature occurs when a polymer goes from being very hard to soft, like rubber,” he said.

“Going from hard to soft, your dimension does not change very much, so they don’t end up sticking together.”

Because of the setbacks, Chiou was not able to create his material until the end of his stay at Max Planck. He hopes to have the material sent from Germany so that he can conduct further research on it here.

What drove Chiou to conduct his research in Germany and to continue it today is his passion for energy. He describes it as the “ultimate underlying material” and wants to work towards providing it for every person.

“It is a lofty dream, I know, but dreams have to be lofty; otherwise there is no reason to go towards them,” Chiou said. “If there is a way to make more efficient use of the energy than we currently have or to find new sources or to produce new energy, that’s something I would like to be a part of.”

That was not always his dream, however. Entering college, Chiou’s goal was to graduate on the pre-medical track with a degree in biomedical engineering.

He made the switch to be a polymer science and engineering major early in his freshman year, when he saw “how important energy was” during his first research project, a SOURCE endeavor in which Chiou worked for a program sponsored by the Dominion Energy Company.

“Cells or energy, I had to pick one or the other,” Chiou said. “Science is not simple enough for someone to take two fields and be an expert at both of them.”

It is Chiou’s goal to eventually become a professor; he wants to make a career out of helping to solve the world’s energy needs. He believes that his time in Germany taught him lessons that will help him reach that level. Chiou says that the key point he took away from the experience was that scientists need to work in harmony for great advances to be made.

“Their system emphasized different professors working in synergy,” Chiou said. “If I ever reach that level, I don’t want to be the guy that sits in his office and just calculates the theories. I want to be the guy that reaches out to other professors and really makes advances in science by pulling together different fields.”