William Byrd, Governor’s School student develops new hybrid hydrogel

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 By REGINA CARSON

At the Roanoke Valley Governor’s School for Science and Technology, students are charged each year with carrying out a science fair project, and this year, RVGS/William Byrd High School junior Richard Qiu elected to work in the materials science field. His project, titled “A Novel Hybrid Hydrogel – Preparation, Characterization, and Applications,” has already won three blue ribbons, and Qiu was named Grand Award Alternate at the regional fair on March 4. He will next compete at the state fair on March 25.

As often happens in science, Qiu stumbled upon the idea for his project while he was looking for something else. “Last fall I was doing research for a paper in English class,” said Qiu, “and I came across a TED Talk about a guy who had created an adhesive gel that stops blood flow instantly. I’m in the Advanced Chemical Research elective at Governor’s School this year, and I wondered if I could create a new hybrid hydrogel that would not only accelerate blood clotting, but would also remove pollutants at the same time.”

Qiu spent hundreds of hours in research, and he discovered that natural polymers alginate and chitosan can be crosslinked – or chemically bonded – to produce a biomaterial that slows bleeding and supports cell growth. He also discovered that the mineral kaolin, when bonded with chitosan, stabilizes the chitosan and controls its swelling, allowing its antimicrobial properties to go to work. “I wanted to see what would happen,” said Qiu, “if I crosslinked all three.”

Through a Governor’s School partnership with a pharmaceutical laboratory in Lynchburg, Qiu was able to spend a couple of Saturdays there in December using their equipment and materials to make his gel. First, he diluted acetic acid with purified water to form a 1 percent acetic acid solution, and then he stirred in chitosan powder to make a chitosan stock. Separately, he dissolved sodium alginate into purified water to make an alginate stock, and he used a homogenizer to add in kaolin. He used the homogenizer again to combine the two stocks, which formed his hybrid hydrogel.

Once Qiu had the gel he needed, he was able to perform all of the testing for his project at the Governor’s School, and he spent the full month of January carrying out dozens of complex experiments. His results so far have been extremely promising, and Qiu hopes that his hydrogel could someday become a product used in disaster relief efforts, or by the military.

“It’s possible!” said Qiu. “Last week the gel removed over 99 percent of pollutants in water, and next week I try it out on sheep’s blood. Wish me luck!”

Richard Qiu is just one of the 264 gifted and talented young scientists who attend the Roanoke Valley Governor’s School for Science and Technology. To learn more about the Governor’s School, a half-day regional public STEM school for motivated students in grades nine through 12, visit the school’s website at www.rvgs.k12.va.us or contact the school’s director, Mark Levy, or the school’s guidance counselor, Kathy Sebolt, at 853-2116.