Saving Qatar’s heritage with nanotechnology

VCUQatar’s Assistant Professor of Physics Dr. Khaled Saoud, undergraduate students Imen Ibala, Dana El Ladki, Omar Ezzeldeen and Research Associate Dr. Shaukat Saeed have successfully synthesized nanomaterials capable of extending the lifespan of the country’s irreplaceable but fragile documents by centuries.

The project, ‘Preservation of Cultural Heritage in Qatar Using Nanotechnology,’ was awarded a $29,249 Undergraduate Research Experience Program (UREP) grant by the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) in June 2013, and aims at conserving and preserving Qatar’s paper-based cultural heritage through the use of cutting edge nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology concerns the design, creation, and use of man-made materials, structures and devices that are less than 100 nanometers in size (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter). Nanotechnology interconnects with nanoscience, the study of the principles of molecules and structures with a linear dimension of 1-100 to nanometers. It is able to produce entirely new materials and improve the properties of existing materials, as particles less than 100 nanometers in size display unique behavioral properties. These properties have allowed researchers on the VCUQatar project to uncover a new method that hinders the damaging effects of acidity on Qatar’s invaluable documents.

Recognizing that the deterioration of cultural heritage objects must be addressed to prevent the loss of history, and that many books from the mid-19th century are fast approaching a point where acidity will make them too delicate to handle, the team focused on finding a treatment, through the application of nanoscience, to halt the aging process. Using microwave synthesis, a technique that produces a quicker and often more effective chemical reaction, the nanomaterials of calcium hydroxide and barium hydroxide were applied to samples of new and old paper to test their effectiveness in reinforcing its strength. Ethanol was found to be the best solvent; the treatment – in liquid form – was sprayed onto texts and the results were analyzed.

The outcome, Dr. Saoud says, is that “dying” books could now be given as many as 1,000 more years of life. “All paper is damaged because of one thing, acidity, as it weakens and eventually destroys the fibers that make up the paper. We looked to neutralize acidity through this treatment in the same way you would neutralize heartburn by taking a tablet. The process will give the paper the strength to survive for many, many years to come”.

“In the future, we can also look at how to prevent paper yellowing, as well as strengthening it. At this stage, however, we did not want to change the color of the paper, because it is part of the integrity of our cultural heritage. We focused on enhancing the strength of the paper, to stop damage and deterioration, and, through this research, we are bringing it back to life.”

While Dr. Saoud was responsible for the research concept, he sees its success as a team effort and is full of praise for the three undergraduate assistants. “They do not have a scientific background – they are all design students – and it was a big challenge for them to be involved in a project like this,” he says. “What I enjoy most is seeing the students’ faces when they first get the results they have been working toward. To work with them and to come up with a breakthrough has been so rewarding for me, and I believe this demonstrates that anybody, from any background, can achieve anything if they are determined to do so.”

The results may have wider implications. Dr. Saoud believes the material produced may also be used as a means to reduce carbon dioxide; as a flame retardant; as reinforcing material in plastic materials to enhance thermal and mechanical properties and as an additive to concrete, making it of potential interest to the construction industry. In terms of
cultural heritage, a possible next step is to adapt the process and examine its effect on textiles. The team has filed an invention disclosure on these materials and is in the process of developing a full patent. 

The results of their research was first presented by team member Imen Ibala at the EuroMed 2014: International Conference on Cultural Heritage held November 3-8 in Limassol, Cyprus and next, at the Qatar Foundation Annual Research Conference 2014 (ARC '14) which was held November 18 and 19 at the Qatar National Convention Centre.

“We want this research to be a gift to the nation, repaying this country for its encouragement and support,” said Dr. Saoud. “The project is dedicated to members of the young generation of Qataris who are working hard to build their nation and breed new knowledge to ensure it has a great future, while also maintaining their cultural heritage. That is very important to Qatar.

“Between the old and new generations, there must be a link, not a gap. We want to expand our knowledge and education, to build a knowledge-based society, but, at the same time, we must never forget our roots.”