During the Covid-19 pandemic, Colombian material scientist Monica Lucia Alvarez Lainez turned her work on polymer nanofibers into a new filtration material, a big plus during the global health emergency.
Alvarez, a full Professor at Universidad EAFIT in Medellin, Colombia, says she spent seven years researching polymer nanofibers (a nanomaterial with a diameter near that of the length of a flu virus).
“My approach to this topic was almost by coincidence,” she says, “At the beginning my research group was focused in developing polymers blends and we were facing some problems regarding the crystallization process in the interface polymer-polymer, so I took the decision to look at how the polymer crystals grow in a confined space.”
Alvarez says while looking for a process to simulate that confined space she stumbled upon an electrospinning technique, and from that moment started to develop nanofibers membranes from different polymers, configurations, and surface functionalities.
“My biggest challenge was to transform the materials that we developed in our laboratory to improve the people’s quality of life,” she says.
Then, as the pandemic started to slow or impede research around the world, it opened up a new opportunity for Alvarez and her team.
“At that moment, we had been developing membranes with very high filtration capacity to catch fine particulate matter (with an average size lower than 2,5 μm), ” she says, “So this membrane was the opportunity to offer a new filtration material to deal with the Coronavirus outbreak.”
Alvarez says scaling up the process for commercial purposes was a “nightmare”, but they are now selling their membranes with outstanding filtration properties and breathability.
From Small Town to Nanomaterials
Alvarez grew up in a small town in Colombia, Puerto Berrio, on the banks of one of Colombia’s biggest rivers, the Magdalena.
“I was a very dedicated student and, very interested to know how things were made,” she says, “At the time I was finishing my high school, in the 90’s, the violence went up in my town, so my family decided that I had to move to Medellin, the capital city of Antioquia department (state), to continue my secondary school studies.”
Alvarez would go on to complete a chemical engineering degree and worked for a short period of time as engineer in a production company.
“But I realized very soon that it was not what I was looking for,” she says.
During her last year of university, Álvarez worked on a small research project developing a composite material, something that rekindled her childhood interest of knowing how things are made.
“For sure, that was my Eureka moment,” she says, adding that at the time, research groups on this topic weren’t very common and so she pursued a doctorate in Physics in Spain, with the goal to do research in polymeric materials.
Alvarez says as technological ecosystems become more developed in the Global South, more people will be enticed to enter into the hard sciences, which will lead to greater and better technological developments.
“I think it is important to develop local capabilities and stop being just technology consumers,” she says, “In terms of added value and new perspectives for the science & technology system in our countries, the most relevant issue is to be an example for future researchers showing them that talent and skills to generate knowledge, as well as to bring innovative solutions to the market, it is not only an attribute of the countries of the north hemisphere.”
Another Colombian materials scientist working on useful nanomaterials is Sandra Arias.
For decades, households have sprayed or wiped down surfaces to kill bacteria – but Arias is investigating smart materials that use nothing more than their microscopic, spiky texture to kill bacteria.