Cui's research group teamed with that of Sarah Heilshorn, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, whose group brought its bioengineering expertise to bear on designing the filters.
Silver has long been known to have chemical properties that kill bacteria. "In the days before pasteurization and refrigeration, people would sometimes drop silver dollars into milk bottles to combat bacteria, or even swallow it," Heilshorn said.
Cui's group knew from previous projects that carbon nanotubes were good electrical conductors, so the researchers reasoned the two materials in concert would be effective against bacteria. "This approach really takes silver out of the folk remedy realm and into a high-tech setting, where it is much more effective," Heilshorn said.
Using the commonplace keeps costs down
But the scientists also wanted to design the filters to be as inexpensive as possible. The amount of silver used for the nanowires was so small the cost was negligible, Cui said. Still, they needed a foundation material that was "cheap, widely available and chemically and mechanically robust." So they went with ordinary woven cotton fabric.
"We got it at Wal-mart," Cui said.
To turn their discount store cotton into a filter, they dipped it into a solution of carbon nanotubes, let it dry, then dipped it into the silver nanowire solution. They also tried mixing both nanomaterials together and doing a single dunk, which also worked. They let the cotton soak for at least a few minutes, sometimes up to 20, but that was all it took.
The big advantage of the nanomaterials is that their small size makes it easier for them to stick to the cotton, Cui said. The nanowires range from 40 to 100 billionths of a meter in diameter and up to 10 millionths of a meter in length. The nanotube
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