(CONTRIBUTED/ Rachid Bowles)
Rachid Bowles, a junior physics major from Birmingham, researching nanofibers during his internship over the summer.
Rachid Bowles, a junior physics major from Birmingham, Alabama, gave a presentation Tuesday about his experience studying abroad at an internship in the Czech Republic over the summer.
Bowles’ internship was done through the International Research Experience for Students (IRES) program through the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB).
Bowles was referred to the program by Dr. Govind Menon, the director of the school of science and technology, chemistry and physics and a professor at Troy University.
Bowles said he was contacted quickly by UAB for an interview.
Students who had been on the trip previously and the leader of the team that was about to embark on the trip conducted the Bowles’ interview.
After the interview, Bowles said he went to a sort of “boot camp” at UAB to prepare him for the trip to the Czech Republic. At the same time, he worked on getting all of the necessary paperwork and forms completed for the trip.
Once everyone on the team had their tickets and passports, they left for Europe. Bowles said the travel took about two days.
Once he had settled in to his dorm room at the Technical University of Liberec, which is located in the city of Liberec, Czech Republic, he began his research into nanofibers.
He started each day in the lab between 7 and 8 a.m.., and he said everyone in the lab usually stopped about 3 or 4 p.m. Bowles said most of the researchers there liked to get done as early as possible.
Bowles focused his research on polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) electrospinning, a process that produces nanofibers.
Nanofibers are fibers that are several magnitudes smaller than human hair.
“Imagine a piece of yarn, but imagine that yarn being almost 30-40 times smaller,” Bowles said. “Then imagine we’re able to create those yarns at a rate of 50-1000 per second.”
The process begins by creating the liquid solution, which was PVA in Bowles’ case. The solution is put into a syringe, which has an electric current running through the needle.
When the solution is run through the electrified needle, multiple fibers arc out in a cone shape, known as a Taylor cone.
On the other end of the cone is a rotating drum, which collects these fibers and forms them into a nanofiber sheet.
Once in sheet form, these nanofibers can serve a variety of functions. Bowles explained that PVA is water-soluble, meaning it will dissolve in water. This makes it ideal for use as the film used for laundry detergent pods, as the film will dissolve and release the detergent without sticking to clothes.
Bowles said that nanofibers have good mechanical and tensile strength, and they are tough to break compared to how small they are.
Aside from making nanofibers, Bowles said he also worked toward optimizing his solution to make the fibers even stronger.
Bowles said that nanofibers could be used in numerous fields, such as defense, solar energy, and even construction. He explained that nanofibers could be used in concrete to make it stronger and more flexible, which would be good in areas that experience earthquakes.
When not doing research, Bowles had the opportunity to travel to other places around Europe, such as Naples and Milan in Italy.
“Naples was probably my favorite place to go just because the scenery was beautiful,” Bowles said. He said the trip included boat tours and other interesting activities.
Bowles said the opportunity as a whole taught him a lot.
“For me, since in my future I want to do more research, it was giving me a taste of how research is done – the correct way to do it, and also being able to collaborate with people my age, which was not easy all the time,” he said.
Bowles said that since the internship is paid and “covers pretty much everything,” it is an amazing opportunity for students interested in doing research to also get out and see the world.
“Being in Troy, sometimes it’s hard to see that there’s so much more world out there, and you realize how little you are and how many people there are in the world,” he said. “Being overseas, I got to see that and feel that while I was there, which was really cool.
“Don’t be scared to take the chance, no matter how long you’re going to be over there,” he added. “It’s a chance that you may or may not ever get to take in your life again, especially if it’s paid for. If you have the opportunity, take it.”