Archive for the ‘Nanotechnology’ Category

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June 10, 2012

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Teleportation breakthrough

May 13, 2012

Quantum teleportation is the transmission of information from one particle to another, without a physical link, using quantum physics. Einstein famously described this as “spooky action at a distance”.

The process was first demonstrated by Austrian scientists in 1997, when the quantum state of a single photon was teleported across a table top. This was followed in 2004 by successful transmission over 600m (1968ft) from one side of the River Danube to the other.
Another breakthrough was made in 2010, when scientists at China’s University of Science and Technology sent photons over a distance of 10 miles (16 km).

Now, the same team has used quantum teleportation to send photons between two optical free-space links over a distance of 60 miles (97 km). The particles were beamed across Qinghai Lake, the largest lake in China.

In the future, perhaps a global network of satellite-based quantum cryptography will be developed, for ultra-secure communications. Using this method, it would be literally impossible for data to be intercepted en route. We may also witness teleportation of the first complex organic molecules (such as DNA and proteins), according to Michio Kaku.

Human teleportation is still a long, long way off however – if such a transportation method is even possible at all. According to a study by the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), the information processing and transfer technology required may become possible in around 250 years, based on current trends.

The full report by the University of Science and Technology of China is available here.

First “microsubmarines” to clean oil spills

May 9, 2012

Scientists are reporting successful development and testing of the first self-propelled “microsubmarines” designed to pick up droplets of oil from contaminated waters and transport them to collection facilities. The report concludes that these tiny machines could play an important role in cleaning up oil spills, like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico.

Different types of microengines are being developed, including devices that could transport medications through the bloodstream to diseased parts of the body. But no one has ever shown that these devices — 10 times thinner than a human hair — could help clean up oil spills. There is an urgent need for better ways of separating oil from water in the oceans and inside factories to avoid spreading oil-contaminated water into the environment.

The team developed so-called microsubmarines, which require very little fuel and move ultrafast, to see whether these small engines could help clean up oil. Tests showed that the cone-shaped microsubmarines can collect droplets of olive oil and motor oil in water and transport them through the water. The microsubs have a special surface coating, which makes them “superhydrophobic,” or extremely water-repellent and oil-absorbent.

“These results demonstrate the potential of the superhydrophobic-modified microsubmarines for facile, rapid and highly efficient collection of oils in oil-contaminated water samples,” say the researchers. The full report appears in the journal ACS Nano.

Targeted nanoparticles show success in clinical trials

April 12, 2012

Tiny particles designed to home in on cancer cells achieve tumor shrinkage at lower doses than traditional chemotherapy.

Targeted therapeutic nanoparticles that accumulate in tumors while bypassing healthy cells have shown promising results in an ongoing clinical trial, according to a new paper.

The nanoparticles feature a homing molecule that allows them to specifically attack cancer cells, and are the first such targeted particles to enter human clinical studies. Originally developed by researchers at MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, they are designed to carry the chemotherapy drug docetaxel, used to treat lung, prostate and breast cancers, among others.

In the study, which appears in the journal Science Translational Medicine, the researchers demonstrate the particles’ ability to target a receptor found on cancer cells and accumulate at tumor sites. The particles were also shown to be safe and effective: Many patients’ tumors shrank as a result of the treatment, even when they received lower doses than those usually administered.

“The initial clinical results of tumor regression even at low doses of the drug validates our preclinical findings that actively targeted nanoparticles preferentially accumulate in tumors,” says Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor in MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering and a senior author of the paper. “Previous attempts to develop targeted nanoparticles have not successfully translated into human clinical studies because of the inherent difficulty of designing and scaling up a particle capable of targeting tumors, evading the immune system and releasing drugs in a controlled way.”

The Phase I clinical trial was performed by researchers at BIND Biosciences, a company cofounded by Langer and Omid Farokhzad.

“This study demonstrates for the first time that it is possible to generate medicines with both targeted and programmable properties that can concentrate the therapeutic effect directly at the site of disease, potentially revolutionizing how complex diseases such as cancer are treated,” says Farokhzad, a senior author of the paper.

BIND-014, a targeted nanoparticle. Credit: MIT

Targeted particles

Langer’s lab started working on polymeric nanoparticles in the early 1990s, developing particles made of biodegradable materials. In the early 2000s, Langer and Farokhzad began collaborating to develop methods to actively target the particles to molecules found on cancer cells. By 2006 they had demonstrated that targeted nanoparticles can shrink tumors in mice, paving the road for the eventual development and evaluation of a targeted nanoparticle called BIND-014, which entered clinical trials in January 2011.

For this study, the researchers coated the nanoparticles with targeting molecules that recognize a protein called PSMA (prostate-specific membrane antigen), found abundantly on the surface of most prostate tumor cells as well as many other types of tumors.

One of the challenges in developing effective drug-delivery nanoparticles, Langer says, is designing them so they can perform two critical functions: evading the body’s normal immune response and reaching their intended targets.

“You need exactly the right combination of these properties, because if they don’t have the right concentration of targeting molecules, they won’t get to the cells you want, and if they don’t have the right stealth properties, they’ll get taken up by macrophages,” says Langer.

The BIND-014 nanoparticles have three components: one that carries the drug, one that targets PSMA, and one that helps evade macrophages and other immune-system cells. A few years ago, Langer and Farokhzad developed a way to manipulate these properties very precisely, creating large collections of diverse particles that could then be tested for the ideal composition.

“They systematically made a set of materials that varied in the properties they thought would matter, and developed a way to screen them. That’s not been done in this kind of setting before,” says Mark Saltzman, a professor of biomedical engineering at Yale University who was not involved in this study. “They’ve taken the concept from the lab into clinical trials, which is quite impressive.”

All of the particles are made of polymers already approved for medical use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Clinical results

The Phase I clinical trial involved 17 patients with advanced or metastatic tumors who had already gone through traditional chemotherapy. In Phase I trials, researchers evaluate a potential drug’s safety and study its effects in the body. To determine safe dosages, patients were given escalating doses of the nanoparticles. So far, doses of BIND-014 have reached the amount of docetaxel usually given without nanoparticles, with no new side effects. The known side effects of docetaxel have also been milder.

In the 48 hours after treatment, the researchers found that docetaxel concentration in the patients’ blood was 100 times higher with the nanoparticles as compared to docetaxel administered in its conventional form. Higher blood concentration of BIND-014 facilitated tumor targeting resulting in tumor shrinkage in patients, in some cases with doses of BIND-014 that correspond to as low as 20 percent of the amount of docetaxel normally given. The nanoparticles were also effective in cancers in which docetaxel usually has little activity, including cervical cancer and cancer of the bile ducts.

The researchers also found that in animals treated with the nanoparticles, the concentration of docetaxel in the tumors was up to tenfold higher than in animals treated with conventional docetaxel injection for the first 24 hours, and that nanoparticle treatment resulted in enhanced tumor reduction.

The Phase I clinical trial is still ongoing and continued dose escalation is underway; BIND Biosciences is now planning Phase II trials, which will further investigate the treatment’s effectiveness in a larger number of patients.

A cheap, portable and disposable DNA sequencer

February 24, 2012

A British company, Oxford Nanopore Technologies, have unveiled their latest product – a cheap, portable, disposable DNA sequencer called the “MinION”.

DNA sequencing has been around since the 1970s. It was used in the Human Genome Project. Until recently, it was extremely expensive and time-consuming. Like Moore’s Law and other trends in information technology, however, its price performance and efficiency have been growing exponentially.

The MinION is the size and form factor of a thumb drive, and powered by a USB port. It can sequence 150 million base pairs in just six hours, using the computer’s own CPU to process the data, and costs just $900 (£570).

This portable device could allow doctors to sequence genes at a patient’s bedside, wildlife biologists to study genes in the field, or food inspectors to identify pathogens, among many other uses.

You can read more at the company’s website.

The MinION (click to enlarge)

2011 – A look back (part 4)

January 22, 2012

Nanotechnology

2011 was another big (or should that be small?) year for nanotech. In January, a team of Swiss researchers published a groundbreaking study. This revealed that Molybdenite – a mineral abundant in nature – could be 100,000 times more energy efficient than silicon transistors. It was also discovered to have better electrical properties than graphene. This material, which is also less voluminous than silicon, could have major potential in the fabrication of nanoelectronics, LEDs and solar cells.

A major breakthrough in nanomedicine was achieved by scientists in Canada. Using a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) system, they successfully guided microcarriers loaded with an anti-cancer drug through the bloodstream of a rabbit – directly to a targeted area in the liver, where the drug was successfully administered.

Progress was also made in developing “lab-on-a-chip” technology. In the future, this will enable rapid, portable and ultra-sensitive diagnosis of diseases and other conditions. It could also have uses in monitoring and testing of the environment. One such device, being developed at the University of California, can detect blood components at a concentration of around 1 part per 40 billion, within 10 minutes. Benjamin Ross, a study co-author, commented: “Imagine if you had something as cheap and easy to use as a pregnancy test, but could quickly diagnose HIV and TB. That would be a real game-changer. It could save millions of lives.”

At the University of Michigan, scientists made biodegradable polymers that could self-assemble into hollow, nanofibre spheres. These were filled with cells and injected into wounds – forming a support structure for the cells as they grew. Once the cells were held in place, the spheres dissolved harmlessly. During testing, the nanofibre group regenerated three to four times more tissue than the control group. In the future, this new method could dramatically improve the healing of cartilage and joints, by enabling complex and oddly-shaped tissue defects to be corrected.

At UCLA, scientists used nanoscale capsules to release a protein directly into lung cancer tumors, stimulating the immune system and causing it to recognise and attack the cancerous cells, inhibiting their growth. So far, the nanocapsules have only been tested in mice, but human trials are expected within three years. This new method, if successful, could allow cancers to be detected and treated at much earlier stages.

At the University of Southern California, researchers developed a carbon nanotube synapse circuit whose behavior in tests reproduced the function of a neuron, the building block of the human brain. In the future, this could be used in brain prostheses – or even combined into a massive network to create the first fully synthetic brain.

At the US Department of Energy (DOE)’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, researchers demonstrated the first true nano-scale waveguides for next generation optical communication systems. This holds potential for nano-scale photonic applications – such as intra-chip optical communication, signal modulation, nano-scale lasers and bio-medical sensing.

The DOE also funded a study with DARPA, in which scientists created a self-powering nano-device that harvested energy from vibrations (i.e. no batteries needed), while simultaneously transmitting data wirelessly over a range of 10 metres (33 ft). This technology could have major potential for devices ranging from airborne and stationary surveillance cameras, to wearable personal electronics, to implantable medical devices.

At Stanford University, researchers developed a new method of attaching nanowire electronics to the surface of any object, regardless of its shape or composition. The method could be used in making everything from wearable electronics and flexible displays to high-efficiency solar cells and ultra-sensitive biosensors.

Meanwhile, a new way of making battery electrodes was unveiled, based on nanostructured metal foams. In the future, this could lead to laptops that charge in a few minutes or cell phones that charge in 30 seconds.

At Tufts University in Massachusetts, researchers created the smallest electric motor ever devised – made from a single molecule. Electrons from a scanning tunnelling microscope were used to “drive” the directional motion of the molecule. A similar project – the world’s smallest electric car – was undertaken by Dutch scientists. Applications for molecular machines like these are probably some decades away, however.

British scientists made a nano-structure that multiplies stem cells used in therapies – a major step towards developing large-scale stem cell culture factories.

International researchers from the USA, Australia, Canada and South Korea used carbon nanotubes to create artificial muscles that could twist 1,000 times more than any similar material made in the past. This development could prove useful in future robotics and prosthetic limbs.

In Spain, researchers unveiled a process allowing complex shapes to be “carved” into nanoparticles, potentially revolutionising medical tests and drug treatments.

In Switzerland, researchers developed magnetic nanoparticles to remove harmful substances from the bloodstream. If successful, this method could be used to easily treat people suffering from drug intoxication, bloodstream infections, and certain cancers.

Meanwhile, German researchers demonstrated a graphene-based transistor array that is compatible with living biological cells and records the electrical signals they generate. This could lead to implantable “bio-electronics” which compensate for neural damage in the brain, eye, or ear.

As mentioned in Part 2, Intel unveiled its next generation of microprocessor technology, Ivy Bridge. These upcoming chips will be the first to use a 22 nanometre manufacturing process.

This carbon nanotube yarn can twist 1,000 times more than any suitable material made in the past. Credit: University of Texas at Dallas

Society & demographics

Arguably the biggest demographic “event” of 2011 happened on 31st October. The UN selected this as a symbolic date when the global population officially reached seven billion. The actual date and time of this milestone can’t be known for sure, however. The US Census Bureau, for example, has forecasted it for March 2012. Whatever the case, it is clear that humanity’s population continues to mushroom and is on course to reach over 9 billion by 2050.

How many people the world can sustain in the future will depend on the willingness of nations to cooperate in the face of growing resource shortages and accelerating environmental decline. Though technological advances could provide solutions to many problems, they will not always be politically or financially possible.

The fastest growing countries remain those in parts of Africa and the Middle East. On current trends, Nigeria’s population will soar from 167 million in 2011 to almost 730 million by 2100. The slowest growing regions are Russia and Eastern Europe, where some populations are actually declining.

China is facing pressure to alter its one-child policy. Experts warn that the country’s population is becoming dangerously unbalanced, with too few adults of working age supporting too many elders. Japan is experiencing a similar trend.

The Muslim population continues to grow rapidly. A study published by the Pew Research Center revealed that, on current trends, it is expected to increase by around 35% in the next 20 years – rising from 1.6 billion in 2011 to 2.2 billion by 2030.

Life expectancy continues to climb – driven by medical advances and rising living standards. The latest available figures from the World Health Organisation show that global average life expectancy is around 66 for men and 71 for women. Japan continues to lead, with 80 for men and 86 for women. Some countries have significant regional divides. In the UK, for example, men in London live up to 14 years longer than those in Glasgow.

2011 saw the number of married adults in the US hit a record low, according to a Pew survey. Just 51% of adults over 18 are married, compared with 72% in 1960. The median age at first marriage has never been higher for brides (26.5 years) and grooms (28.7).

Another study by Pew highlights a substantial generational divide in economic well-being. During the last quarter-century, US adults over 65 saw their net worth rise by 42%, while those under 35 saw theirs plummet by 68%.

A record-low 11% of Americans are satisfied with the job Congress is doing, according to a Gallup poll. In Europe, a median of 36% across 27 EU member states are confident in their government. Confidence appears to be lowest in southern and eastern Europe. Unsurprisingly, Greeks are the least hopeful among all EU members, with just 2% saying their local economy is getting better.

Self-healing electronics could work longer and reduce waste

December 24, 2011

When one tiny circuit within an integrated chip cracks or fails, the whole chip – or even the whole device – is a loss. But what if it could fix itself, and fix itself so fast that the user never even knew there was a problem?

Engineers at the University of Illinois have developed a self-healing system that restores electrical conductivity to a cracked circuit in less time than it takes to blink. Led by aerospace engineering professor Scott White and materials science and engineering professor Nancy Sottos, the researchers published their results in the journal Advanced Materials.

“It simplifies the system,” said chemistry professor Jeffrey Moore, a co-author of the paper. “Rather than having to build in redundancies or to build in a sensory diagnostics system, this material is designed to take care of the problem itself.”

As electronic devices are evolving to perform more sophisticated tasks, manufacturers are packing as much density onto a chip as possible. However, such density compounds reliability problems, such as failure stemming from fluctuating temperature cycles as the device operates or fatigue. A failure at any point in the circuit can shut down the whole device.

“In general there’s not much avenue for manual repair,” Sottos said. “Sometimes you just can’t get to the inside. In a multilayer integrated circuit, there’s no opening it up. Normally you just replace the whole chip. It’s true for a battery too. You can’t pull a battery apart and try to find the source of the failure.”

Most consumer devices are meant to be replaced fairly regularly, adding to electronic waste issues, but in many important applications – such as instruments or vehicles for space or military functions – electrical failures can’t be replaced or repaired.

The Illinois team previously developed a system for self-healing polymer materials and decided to adapt their technique for conductive systems. They dispersed tiny microcapsules, as small as 10 microns in diameter, on top of a gold line functioning as a circuit. As a crack propagates, the microcapsules break open and release the liquid metal contained inside. The liquid metal fills in the gap in the circuit, restoring electrical flow.

Click to enlarge.

“What’s really cool about this paper is it’s the first example of taking the microcapsule-based healing approach and applying it to a new function,” White said. “Everything prior to this has been on structural repair. This is on conductivity restoration. It shows the concept translates to other things as well.”

A failure interrupts current for mere microseconds as the liquid metal immediately fills the crack. The researchers demonstrated that 90 percent of their samples healed to 99 percent of original conductivity, even with a small amount of microcapsules.

The self-healing system also has the advantages of being localised and autonomous. Only the microcapsules that a crack intercepts are opened, so repair only takes place at the point of damage. Furthermore, it requires no human intervention or diagnostics, a boon for applications where accessing a break for repair is impossible, such as a battery, or finding the source of a failure is difficult, such as an air- or spacecraft.

“In an aircraft, especially a defense-based aircraft, there are miles and miles of conductive wire,” Sottos said. “You don’t often know where the break occurs. The autonomous part is nice – it knows where it broke, even if we don’t.”

Next, the researchers plan to further refine their system and explore other possibilities for using microcapsules to control conductivity. They are particularly interested in applying the microcapsule-based self-healing system to batteries, improving their safety and longevity.

Paint-on solar cells developed

December 23, 2011

Imagine if the next coat of paint you put on the outside of your home generated electricity from light — electricity that could be used to power the appliances and equipment on the inside.

Researchers at the University of Notre Dame have taken a major step towards this vision by creating inexpensive “solar paint” that uses semiconducting nano-particles to produce energy.

“We want to do something transformative, to move beyond current silicon-based solar technology,” says Professor Prashant V. Kamat, an investigator in Notre Dame’s Center for Nano Science and Technology (NDnano), who leads the research.

“By incorporating power-producing nanoparticles, called quantum dots, into a spreadable compound, we’ve made a one-coat solar paint that can be applied to any conductive surface without special equipment.”

Photo Credit: ACS Nano

The team’s search for the new material, described in the journal ACS Nano, centered on nano-sized particles of titanium dioxide, which were coated with either cadmium sulfide or cadmium selenide. The particles were then suspended in a water-alcohol mixture to create a paste.

When the paste was brushed onto a transparent conducting material and exposed to light, it created electricity.

“The best light-to-energy conversion efficiency we’ve reached so far is 1 percent, which is well behind the usual 10 to 15 percent efficiency of commercial silicon solar cells,” explains Kamat.

“But this paint can be made cheaply and in large quantities. If we can improve the efficiency somewhat, we may be able to make a real difference in meeting energy needs in the future.”

“That’s why we’ve christened the new paint, Sun-Believable,” he adds.

Kamat and his team also plan to study ways to improve the stability of the new material.

Self-cleaning clothes

December 20, 2011

Chinese scientists have developed a special nano-particle coating. When applied to cotton, it causes the fabric to clean itself and remove odours if exposed to sunlight.

The alcohol-based compound is made with titanium dioxide. This is known to be an “excellent catalyst in the degradation of organic pollutants.” It breaks down dirt and kills microbes when exposed to some types of light.

Self-cleaning fabrics have been made in the past, but they only worked if exposed to ultraviolet rays. This new fabric cleans itself in the presence of ordinary sunlight.

The researchers say the method is cheap, non-toxic and ecologically friendly. Retail experts say the innovation could prove popular with retailers due to rising demand for “functional clothing”. The nano-particles remain embedded after washing and drying.

More information can be found in Applied Materials and Interfaces.

Carving at the Nanoscale

December 9, 2011

Researchers at the Catalan Institute of Nanotechnology (ICN) have demonstrated a new method for producing a wide variety of complex, hollow nanoparticles. The work, published this week in Science, applies well-known processes of corrosion in a novel manner to produce highly complex, cage-like nano-scale structures. These could have potential applications in fields from medicine to industrial processing.

A common theme in nanotechnology research is the recycling of “old” processes that were once applied crudely on larger bulk materials, but which can now be applied to nano-sized structures with extreme precision, using new instruments and knowledge.

After several years of research, scientists at ICN have refined methods based on traditional corrosion techniques, including the galvanic effect. They show that these methods, which are far more aggressive at the nano-scale than in bulk materials (due to the higher surface area of nanostructures), can provide interesting pathways for the production of new and exotic materials.

By making simple changes in the chemical environment, it is possible to tightly control the reaction and diffusion processes at room temperatures – allowing for high yields and high consistency in form and structure. This should make the processes particularly attractive for commercial applications as they are easily adapted to industrial scales.

A wide range of structures can be formed – including open boxes, bimetallic and trimetallic double-walled open boxes with pores, multiwalled/multichamber boxes, double-walled, porous and multichamber nanotubes, nanoframes, noble metal fullerenes, and many others.

Aside from their intrinsic beauty, these nanostructures will provide new options for drug delivery, chemical sampling, detoxification, catalysis and even structural components for nano-scale robots.