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Professor Creates Graphene-based Antimicrobial Film
Toby Weber

A researcher with the Cullen College of Engineering has helped create a nanotechnology-based material that is extremely effective at killing E. coli and other pathogenic bacteria.

Debora Rodrigues, assistant professor in the college’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, worked in collaboration with Rigoberto Advincula, professor of chemistry at the University of Houston, to develop this new antimicrobial thin film material. It is a nanocomposite consisting of a polymer mixed with nanosheets of graphene oxide (GO), which is toxic to E. coli and other microorganisms.

While other research has shown that GO is effective at killing microorganisms, this new material stands out because of how effectively it kills bacteria with such a small amount of GO. In fact, this thin film kills microorganisms more effectively than a thin film made of pure GO while using roughly one-tenth of the material. That’s extremely important from a human health safety standpoint.

“Initial studies suggested the utilization of high concentrations of GO are toxic to humans. Our research allows the reduction of the amount of GO on coatings to below concentration levels that are toxic to humans, while maintaining their antimicrobial properties,” said Rodrigues.

The key to creating such an efficient antimicrobial material lies, obviously, in how it is made.

One of the biggest challenges of using pure GO as an antimicrobial is getting it to disperse evenly in a liquid solution. As a result, some parts of the solution have no GO present while others have more than is needed.

To overcome this, Rodrigues and Advincula added the polymer to the GO/solution mixture. This combination caused the GO to disperse evenly throughout the liquid. They then deposited the materials into surfaces, forming a thin film with an even coating of GO.

Notably, this research is not a new area of study for Rodrigues. She has published several articles on the toxicology of carbon nanotubes and their impact to the environment. Her research group at the Cullen College focuses on developing sustainable, environmentally friendly technologies to prevent outbreaks of pathogens such as the E. coli outbreak that occurred in Europe just weeks ago.

Looking ahead, then, she plans to evaluate the nanocomposite’s value in water filtration, as well as to continue to tweak the GO/polymer mix to achieve even better antimicrobial performance.

“The types of coating we’re making have many different applications: medical devices, food processing, water treatment, corrosion prevention, drug delivery” Rodrigues said. “We just need to continue to fine tune the concentration and types of nanomaterials to achieve the best balance between performance and safety.”

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