Hot Plate Science: High School Students Learn To Make Nanoparticles at U-Idaho-CDA

Thursday, April 5 2012

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho – Lake City High School chemistry teacher Kevin Haler has gone deeper into the lab than many K-12 teachers dare to venture.

Haler is part of an interdisciplinary research team working in the University of Idaho Coeur d’Alene laboratory. They have been studying silver and gold nanoparticles for use in biosensors that can rapidly detect and identify microorganisms and toxins, including Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Salmonella.

Over the past two summers, Haler synthesized nanoparticles, purified them and helped put the sensors together.

If he has his way, late this spring or early next fall, Haler’s students will be whipping up their own batches of nanomaterial, from scratch.

“It’s surprisingly simple,” said Haler. “All it takes is a hot plate and magnetic stirring bar.”

“We’re going to make the silver nanoparticles in the classroom. Then we’re going to make an agar (the culture medium used in petri dishes) to test the growth rate of bacteria under different concentrations of the nanoparticles. That will show us how effective the silver nanoparticles are at killing bacteria, and its effectiveness used in different amounts.”

Nanoparticles are just as tiny as they sound, measuring 1-100 nanometers wide. For a sense of scale: the width of a single hair is about 100,000 nanometers. The silver nanoparticles Haler and his class will synthesize are roughly 50 nanometers in diameter. Needless to say, nanoparticles are visible only under a powerful microscope.

Haler spent the last two summers armed with just such a microscope as he pursued research funded by a $15,000 grant from the Murdock Charitable Trust. He’s worked in the University of Idaho Coeur d’Alene lab with food scientist Larry Branen, now retired, and organic and nanomaterials chemist Shiva Rastogi, with additional support from lab technician Charlene Gibson. Ashley McFarland, the University’s Master Water Steward program coordinator, will be helping with the project in his classroom.

Haler and the team successfully developed the silver nanoparticles and effectively incorporated them into the biosensor. The biosensor works much like a commercial pregnancy test stick to identify toxins and pathogens.

Haler recently earned a $7,000 supplemental Murdock grant. About $4,000 of that funding was a direct result of a previous $2,000 grant he received from the Excel Foundation. The Murdock Trust double-matched funding up to $2,000 from another source.

One of the reasons he was awarded the additional funding was his focus on a new application arising from the previous research, he said.

“I developed a project that evolves from the research we’ve done, and includes something practical,” said Haler.

Haler and his students will investigate the antimicrobial properties of sliver nanoparticles for incorporation into the fabric of workout clothes. That futuristic fashion is already on the market.

“Companies like Silverell products and Silvermax put silver nanoparticles in socks and undergarments, in the armpits of shirts, and in other places where bacteria tend to colonize in workout gear,” Haler said. “I thought we could make the nanoparticles and an agar, then inoculate the agar to test how effectively the nanoparticles kill bacteria at different doses.”

Haler says working with seasoned university scientists also helped him win his bid for the supplemental funding.

“Part of what the granting agency wanted was to involve those mentors, and work forward from the previous research,” said Haler. “I also want to involve the scientists from the university in this project, so that my students get the opportunity to see a real research lab. A field trip to the lab generates student interest, and allows them to make contacts as they go on to college, and elsewhere.”

While he is a teacher first, Haler has enjoyed “getting his hands dirty” working as a laboratory scientist, he said.

“It’s good to actually apply what you're doing and get an idea of the new, different technology that’s out there,” he said. “I really want to bring that sense of discovery into the classroom.”
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