Inter-Particle Power

Author: Jan Mathew
From bubble nucleation to colloidal dispersions, every ‘little bit’ counts

In a research area characterized by observing, manipulating, controlling, and ultimately predicting behaviors of minute particles and small-scale processes, David Corti was drawn to the School of Chemical Engineering for a relatively global reason: growth potential.

Professor David Corti

Professor David Corti

“I felt the school would be a particularly nurturing environment for young faculty,” says Corti, who came to Purdue in 1998, “and it’s lived up to my expectations.”

Corti traces his current research interests — bubble nucleation and colloidal dispersions — to his PhD at Princeton University and postdoctoral work at UCLA. And, as with all compelling research, pursuing these quests throughout his 12 years at Purdue has pointed to more questions.

Recent findings in bubble nucleation research, for example, cast doubt on some aspects of a theory dating to the 1920s that attempts to describe the underlying molecular mechanism behind a phenomenon called “homogeneous nucleation.”

“Our findings offer a new picture of how phase transitions occur in liquids,” says Corti, “and we’re still working through the implications. If we’re able to better control nucleation rates, it could lead to different ways of making materials, or to materials with interesting properties.” Further research also could result in a more precise understanding of the “phase transition” that takes place when bubbles form, grow, and then become a vapor — insights with possible implications for industry.

Corti’s joint project with Elias Franses, which is sponsored by the Hewlett-Packard Labs Innovation Research Program, focuses on colloidal dispersions. Specifically, Corti is researching the stability of ink dispersions by controlling the force interactions between pigment particles. “Hewlett-Packard’s concern is with pigment particles in ink that might clog printer-heads,” Corti explains. “By manipulating the properties of these inks, we can examine how fast pigment particles come together or whether they’re well-dispersed. Ultimately, our findings could lead to new ways of making improved inks.

“In general, the more understanding we gain about how to influence the behavior of particles, the better we’re able to tailor processes in order to either get a better product, or prevent an undesirable outcome.”

Employing computational methods to mimic a range of systems make “the sky the limit” for Corti’s research. “The freedom and flexibility of the computer helps us understand, on a molecular level, the same concepts that would be very challenging to obtain, in some cases, experimentally.”

In the years ahead, Corti anticipates his findings will move from the School of Chemical Engineering to the industrial world — and possibly beyond.

“With nucleation, all roads point to the fact that what we found appears right,” he says. Currently, we’re looking for the signature of what makes it right. That’s the puzzle on my part — to further prove that what we’ve found is correct.”