Clemson professor receives grant to study heterogeneous nucleation

From left: Judge Hanger, Siva Kalyan Dasetty, Sapna Sarupria, Brittany Glatz. Sarupria, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Clemson University has been awarded a National Science Foundation grant to lead a five-year study of freezing on a molecular level. Photo courtesy of Clemson University.

A Clemson University researcher will lead a “cool” new study.

Sapna Sarupria, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Clemson, has been awarded a CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation worth $503,773 to study the freezing process on a molecular level.

Sarupria and her team will use state-of-the-art molecular modeling and computer science techniques. She believes the study could help other experts pioneer ways to preserve foods, study climate, cryopreserve organs, and protect crops from the cold.

“If you really cool liquid down, it doesn’t instantly turn into a solid,” Sarupria said in a statement. “It takes a while. A nucleus has to form, just the right amount of that little bit of solid that will make the whole thing turn solid. That process is what we’re interested in.”

For example, common knowledge is that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. But some materials and conditions can cause water to freeze at higher or lower temperatures due to a molecular process called heterogeneous nucleation.

Pure water can be cooled down to -36.4 degrees Fahrenheit without freezing.

Sarupria said she hopes research will lead to new materials that could be added to water to form ice at a specific rate and temperature.

“You would think that we know water, but we really, really don’t,” Sarupria said. “Water does whatever it wants to do, and everything else rotates around it. That excites me about studying it, to figure out what it’s trying to do. It’s very, very cool to see it work.”

Sarupria’s team will utilize specialized software they developed and Clemson’s computing power to speed up sampling by more than a factor of 20.

The approach will narrow down the options to the most promising materials that can then be tested in a lab. The process of physically testing each possible material would take longer and be more expensive.

“This research is transformative because it provides a computationally inexpensive pathway to screen materials for ice nucleation propensity,” Sarupria said.

She said as much as one-third of the world’s food production is currently lost because of spoilage due to improper transportation and spoilage. About 842 million people around the world are chronically undernourished.

Sarupria said she became interested in the study after speaking with atmospheric chemistry experts at Princeton University who were interested in heterogeneous nucleation. The process occurs in the atmosphere when dust and other particles combine with water vapor to form clouds.

She said she was fascinated with how little is known about freezing.

As part of the grant, Sarupria will develop two educational platforms. The platforms are aimed a teaching high school students, undergraduates and graduate students about materials, engineering, computational materials science and working in multidisciplinary teams.

The first, MuSIC Fest is a computational materials code fest mimicking popular hackathons. The other is MolLego, a touchscreen game focused on molecular engineering.

“Dr. Sarupria shows excellence in research and education, making her CAREER award a richly deserved honor,” said Anand Gramopadhye, dean of Clemson’s College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, in a statement. “She exemplifies the role of teacher-scholar and the integration of the two.”

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