March 18, 2019

New Strides in Nanotechnology

Bill Link

Bill Link
Global V.P. - People Support & Development and Communications/2THEDGE

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The National Nanotechnology Initiative defines nanotechnology as the manipulation of matter with at least one dimension of a size from 1 to 100 nanometres (1 nanometre is one billionth of a meter). The prefix, “nano” is from a Greek word meaning “dwarf.” The nanometre, which is the diameter of a helium atom, is the unit of measure to express dimensions on an atomic scale.  It is also used to express the wavelength of electromagnetic radiation near the visible end of the light spectrum. Because the definition is based on size, the applications can include surface science, organic chemistry, molecular biology, semiconductor physics, energy storage, microfabrication, and microengineering, among others.  Currently, scientists are interested in exploring the potential of nanotechnology to create new materials and devices in nanomedicine and biomaterials, nanoelectronics, energy production, and consumer products. Here, we explore some of the strides science is making in these fields.

Nanomedicine and Biomaterials

Nanomedicine encompasses the medical applications of biomaterials and biological devices. Biomaterials science deals with engineered substances that interact with biological systems for a diagnostic or therapeutic purpose.

Diagnosis

In medial diagnoses, nanoparticles are being used with MRIs for better tumor detection. Nanosized agents have greater magnetic susceptibility than traditional MRI contrast agents. What this means is that nanosized agents can characterize tumors on the liver more reliably and quickly when doctors introduce them in a patient intravenously. Further, testing of nanoparticles coated with antibodies, collagen, and micro-molecules is underway to determine their effectiveness for early detection of many diseases, including cancer of the breast, prostate, cervix and lung. In yet another imaging application, scientists have developed quantum dots with florescence that aid doctors in imaging and diagnosing conditions in the intestines.

Treatment

The other aspect of nanomedicine is therapeutic. The current focus is on the targeted delivery of drugs, nucleic acids, and other nanoparticles to patients.  Nanodevices such as the dendrometer, ceramic nanoparticles, and carbon nanotubes may be useful in targeting cancer cells and cells of the immune system to treat infectious diseases like HIV and leishmaniasis. Nanodevices also can help prevent rejection of transplanted organs because of a property known as immunoisolation. Perforations on the surface of nanoparticles allow the introduction of small molecules like oxygen, glucose and insulin, while impeding others like immunoglobulin. This property shows great promise in the treatment of diabetes. In the future, researchers are envisioning microbivores that could function as artificial phagocytes to destroy pathogens. Potentially, microbivores could be 1000 times more effective in clearing bacteria than phagocytes and antibiotics without harmful side effects.

A team at Wuhan University of Technology and the Beijing Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology in China have determined that nanoclusters of gold particles prevent the build-up of alpha-Synuclein in mice, which reversed some symptoms of neurological damage. Future successful tests in humans could lead to a drug to slow, or even halt, the progression of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Lewy Body Syndrome.

Research in the are of polysynthetic fibers for faster and more effective wound closure suggests that traditional sutures may become a “thing of the past.” Though the materials used in sutures have improved over time, scar tissue from the healing process remains an issue and often causes reduced functionality of the affected tissue.  Scientists now have developed a photosynthetic suture made of genetically modified microalgae that stimulates the production of growth factors and oxygen. Early results indicate that these microalgae could prevent some or most scar tissue from forming, and accelerate the healing process.

In one of the most interesting fields of research, doctors are teaming with engineers to advance tendon tissue engineering.  The impetus for this research is the unsatisfactory outcomes current clinical treatments for tendon injuries have yielded.  The possibility of an engineered strategy to regenerate tendons comes from an intriguing proposal by Professor Jan de Boer at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands. Due to the mechanosensitive nature of tendon cells, replicating tendon cells in vitro requires mechanical stimuli for adequate cell functioning. De Boer posits that micro-typographical architectures could be the mechanical stimuli that produces biomechanical cues to control the behavior of tenocyte cells in the replication of tendon tissue.  

Nanoelectronics

Nanoelectronics refers to the use of nanotechnology in electronic components. Nanoelectronics devices and materials are so small as to require study of interatomic interactions and quantum mechanical properties. Experts consider nanoelectronics to be a disruptive technology in that present applications differ significantly from traditional transistors. Applications under development include clothing that can recharge electronics, vibrant paint that changes display and color, flexible computers, implantable electronic sensors for biological and health applications,  and more precise sensors of gases, light, and acoustics, among others.

Wearables

The current generation of wearable electronics involves fixing devices to fabrics, which can be rigid and frequently malfunctioning. The next generation of wearable or “smart” electronics will be embedded into the fabric thanks to the development of graphene. Graphene is an atomic-scale, hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms that has many unique properties. It is nearly transparent and is the strongest material ever tested. It conducts heat and electricity efficiently, and it can be levitated by magnets. Engineers at the University of Exeter have devised a method for producing fully electronic fibers that can be integrated into the production of day-to-day clothing with graphene.  This method could revolutionize the fashion industry with implantable sensors, biological and health applications, and more.

Nano Paints

Nano paints contain crystalline particles. A low-grade magnetic field controls the ability of the particles to reflect light and change color. This application is in use already for cars, buildings (interiors and exteriors), and a variety of consumer and industrial products. A small electromagnetic charge maintains the color. At the press of a button, however, the user can change the color.

Flexible Computers and Sensors

Nanoelectronics is also transforming computers and their uses. For example, a biomaterials scientist at MIT is testing a tiny pill that is an ingestible computer. The pill combines a microphone, thermometer, and a battery to collect data from inside the body. Other ingestible computers like the Proteus sensor track how patients take prescribed medications and a  PillCam that allows people to skip colonoscopies.

Energy Production

There are a variety of ways experts are exploring to produce energy more efficiently and cost-effectively.  For example, researchers have demonstrated that concentrated sunlight on nanoparticles produces steam with high energy efficiency (more than twice the efficiency of fluorescence bulbs, in fact). The intended use is in developing countries is to run power plants and purify water. A non-engineered polymer is being used in high-efficiency light bulbs. The polymer makes these bulbs shatterproof. Others are seeking to use nano-sized crystalline structures wrapped around the filaments in incandescent bulbs to convert some of the infrared radiation to visible light.

Lighter-weight windmill blades made of carbon nanotubes, potentially, can produce more electricity. Sheets of nanotubes wrapped around heat sources (e.g., the exhaust pipe of a car) could generate electricity from what currently is “wasted” heat. Piezoelectric nanofibers woven into clothing can turn normal motion into electricity to power cell phones and other mobile devices. New nanotechnology in batteries can charge them faster and extend their shelf-life life for decades.  Other applications are in development for Solar Cells, Fuel Cells, and Fuels themselves.

Consumer Products

Some of the more interesting consumer products with nanotechnology that are evolving include a topical nanoparticle application that is more effective in blocking UV rays without leaving a residue on the skin, lithium batteries with nanoparticle-based electrodes for electric cars, and flame-retardant coatings for microfibers in furniture.  Still others are titanium oxide nanoparticles in film that uses energy from light to kill bacteria on surfaces, silica nanoparticles to fill spaces between carbon fibers to strengthen a variety of sporting good products, and a nanoporous material called aerogel to insulate walls of buildings that is 66% thinner than traditional insulation.

In 1959, Richard Feynman delivered a lecture to the American Physical Society entitled, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” In his talk, he argued that humans would continue to innovate smaller and more powerful devices. How right he was! In 1986, K. Eric Drexler first introduced the term, “nanotechnology.” Clearly, advancements in nanotechnology are showing us that more and more science fiction is becoming science fact.

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