Idaho National Labs is Using Plasma to Mass Produce Nanoparticles and better Armor and Trying to Use Plasma to More Efficiently Make Gas and Diesel

Mike Wall wrote on research at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) to harness plasma, the fourth state of matter.

Peter Kong, technical lead for plasma processing at INL, has built a career of putting plasma to work. He’s using it to mass-produce nanoparticles, a project that in August received $1 million in federal stimulus funding. He’s also employing plasma to find ways to store hydrogen efficiently, and he’ll soon start a project using plasma to convert natural gas, coal and heavy oil to gasoline and diesel. These last two efforts could help the United States break its addiction to foreign oil and, perhaps, to fossil fuels altogether.

Plasma Nanoparticle Fabricator
Nanoparticles can be difficult and expensive to make. Kong is hoping to change that with his unique Plasma Nanoparticle Fabricator, a man-sized conglomeration of cables and shiny steel that looks a bit like a robotic squid. Sand-size grains of material fed into the PNF get vaporized by a plasma arc exceeding 12,000 degrees Celsius, twice as hot as the surface of the sun. As the vapor exits the reactor’s processing zone, the gas cools down so fast—a rate of 1 million degrees per second—that its atoms have very little time to glom together

A cloud of alumina, or aluminum oxide, nanoparticles exits INL’s modular plasma reactor

Two Years to Improved Nanoparticle Fab

The PNF is in a pre-pilot stage. Kong and his team will use the newly awarded grant money to test and tweak the invention further. Within a couple of years, he hopes to build a bigger, more powerful version that is completely user-friendly, so that anyone can operate it with minimal training. And he wants the new, improved PNF to make even smaller, more uniform nanoparticles. This is possible, Kong says; he just needs to increase the velocity of the vapor coming out of the reactor, and cool it down faster—perhaps at 10 million degrees per second or even faster. He has ideas about how to do this but is not yet ready to discuss the details publicly.

2010 Specialized Nanoparticle Fab for Better Armor

In the coming year, Kong may also begin work on a more specialized version of the PNF. He has a proposal in to the U.S. Army to manufacture nanocomposite materials for lightweight armors.

“The material I want to develop and produce will have multi-hit capability, up to large-caliber small arms, such as a sniper rifle,” Kong says. It’s possible his proposed nanocomposite armor could work against heavier projectiles, too, according to Kong, but such capabilities would require more work and more testing.

Kong’s armor would contain layered composite materials made of lightweight metal and ceramic nanoparticles. His team would manufacture these composites with a new, special PNF. Using the existing, general-purpose PNF wouldn’t work, because the production of such materials is tricky and cannot tolerate any cross-contamination. Kong thinks the Army will make a decision about his proposal sometime during the current fiscal year

Possible Breakthrough in More Efficient Oil Refining

The PNF does not monopolize Kong’s time. He recently signed on as a consultant to a large U.S.-based multinational corporation that wants to use microwave plasma to convert coal to liquid fuels such as gasoline and diesel. Kong brings a wealth of experience to the project. In the 1990s, he developed several plasma technologies to process hard-to-refine very heavy hydrocarbons, such as heavy crude oil, oil sands and oil shale. His methods activated natural gas into plasma, producing large amounts of hydrogen and super-reactive molecules called radicals. The radicals “cracked” heavy hydrocarbon molecules into lighter and shorter fragments, which then combined with the radicals and hydrogen atoms to form usable transportation fuels. Industry showed little interest in the technologies at the time, he says, because light, sweet crude — which is easier to process — was still abundant and cheap.

Better Chemical Hydrides for Storing Hydrogen

Kong is also working with a large multinational chemical company to find better ways to store hydrogen. Chemical storage — in which hydrogen is locked into more complex molecules, then released later after exposure to heat and/or catalysts — strikes many scientists as more practical. But current technologies for making such chemical hydrides are complicated and energy-intensive. Kong is using plasma in an attempt to revolutionize the production process.