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NMR technology is not a clear-cut choice for all chemists to use

Lars Nordstierna is one of the researchers who uses the facilities regularly. He is an associate professor in surface chemistry at Chalmers and does research on soft material — that is, material that permits the movement of liquids or gases within it.

“You might think that this wooden table is a hard material, of course,” Nordstierna says, knocking on the table top in his office. “But if you pour water on it, the water will penetrate the table top. In other words, soft material is porous on a nanoscale, unlike metals, for example, which do not permit penetration.”

KNOWLEDGE OF VARIOUS materials’ properties is important for a number of different applications, everything from clothing made of cellulose from wood as a replacement for wool to pharmaceuticals in which the active ingredient to be released in the right place in the body makes up a small portion of the tablet. Nordstierna has had and has doctoral students who have studied the possibilities of making something other than paper out of cellulose from forests. The forest industry is eager to find new fields of application at a time when paper manufacturing is decreasing in Sweden. At the same time, many of today’s materials are produced in a way that is not good for the environment. “One example is cotton cultivation, which requires a lot of water and the use of lots of biocides,” he says.

Instead of using cotton, which also contains cellulose, to produce clothing, you can make clothing out of cellulose from the forest. Viscose is one such example. But in order for it to be used to a greater extent and be developed, we need to find a production process that has less of an impact on nature. This is where Nordstierna’s NMR technology comes in. “By studying cellulose fibres, we can find out more about their properties. And if we can understand the molecular level, we often can also understand the material’s macroscopic properties.”

NMR IS A common analytical technology, but there are a number of different methods that can be used within the field. To study cellulose, Nordstierna makes use of solid-phase NMR, in which the sample consists of a solid material instead of a liquid.

“Many researchers use NMR spectroscopy to investigate molecular structures, such as the structure of proteins. I myself am almost always familiar with the structure. Instead I want to find out how materials associate or aggregate with one another. Simply how cellulose molecules crowd together.”

Often methodology development has occurred within a certain application, but others then can use the same methodology to study something else. At the centre there is a concerted effort to develop methodologies, which takes place in close interaction with the researchers using the instruments.

NMR TECHNOLOGY is not a clear-cut choice for all chemists to use. But for Nordstierna it is natural, because he has solid knowledge in this area from his time as a doctoral student at the Royal Institute of Technology. “I studied NMR spectroscopy for my doctorate,” he says with a smile.

He thinks the great advantages of NMR are the ability to obtain spectroscopic resolutions for all of the components in the sample. If you have ethanol and water in the sample, you can see all of the atoms in the result. You can see how quickly something moves and how different materials bind with one another.

“It’s easy to produce a result, but it can be difficult to interpret it in the right way since there are so many parameters to keep an eye on. Nor are there any ready-made approaches in many cases, but rather you have to feel your way forward to determine what an optimal measurement consists of.”

Text: Camilla Persson
Photo: Malin Arnesson

This interview is en excerpt from a longer article about the Swedish NMR Centre published in Science Faculty Magazine No 1 2016.

Page Manager: Anders Pedersen|Last update: 8/30/2016

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