For many companies developing new nanotech products it may not be feasible to have an in-house lab to fully analyze the properties and structure of their products. Fortunately several companies have made it their business to analyze nanomaterials for others, and have labs with the necessary equipment and staff to run the analytical equipment and interpret the results.
A few years ago there were several news stories and research articles indicating the advantages of graphene over carbon nanotubes. I find it interesting that recently research articles have been talking about obtaining better performance when graphene and carbon nanotubes are used together. That combination, in some situations, can result in better performance than when using them separately.
Recently I read about a method to deliver drugs to the interior of a cell through the cell membrane to treat diseases such as cancer. This method, developed at the Georgia Institute of Technology, blasts temporary holes in the cell membrane which allow therapeutic drug molecules to enter the cell.
Anybody who tries to keep up with nanotechnology is familiar with the many news stories about the potential applications of graphene. These stories remind me of the stories about the potential applications of nanotubes that proliferated just a few years ago.
Looking at news stories about the application of nanotechnology to medical issues it seemed to me that articles about curing heart disease show up much less frequently than articles about curing cancer. That got me thinking, so I started looking for programs that coordinate and fund research toward the application of nanotechnology to curing heart disease.
One of the challenges with current cancer treatments is how to deliver drugs to tumors without causing debilitating side effects. By delivering drugs in a more targeted way, some of those side effects can be reduced. There are several companies and universities developing targeted drug delivery using nanoparticles. One method being developed by researchers at MIT and University of California at San Diego and Santa Barbara looks interesting. They have divided the task between two nanoparticles in order to increase the targeting effectiveness.
Solar panels are a widely accepted way to generate electricity if your house is off the grid or if you want to supplement power from the grid, however in some regions windmills may be much more effective. Considering that adding nanotubes to composites produces stronger, lighter components I had assumed that nanotubes would be used to produce larger windmills that can withstand higher winds. I was therefore interested to find Eagle Windpower taking a different approach in one of their product lines by using an epoxy containing carbon nanotubes to improve small windmills, small enough to be used to power a single house.
In updating my Nanotechnology in Medicine page recently, I noticed that several efforts to use nanotechnology in medicine have moved from the realm of research papers to the pre-clinical or clinical testing stage. For example, CytImmune has published the preliminary results of a phase 1 clinical trial of a targeted chemotherapy treatment method. They use gold nanoparticles attached to a molecule of a tumor-killing agent called tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF) as well as a molecule of Thiol-derivatized polyethylene glycol (PEG-THIOL), which hides the TNF bearing nanoparticle from the immune system. The PEG-THIOL allows the nanoparticle to flow through the blood stream without being attacked. The combination of a gold nanoparticle, TNF and PEG-THIOL is named Aurmine.
Mack Carter, Program Manager for the NanoTech User Facility at the University of Washington in Seattle has a passion for getting the word out about the equipment available at his lab. This facility is part of the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN), whose goal is to support nanotechnology research. Mack was gracious enough to invite me to visit UW’s NanoTech User Facility recently, and I eagerly accepted.
Say you’re an aspiring young nanotechnologist with an idea for a new product. What are the barriers to moving your project forward? One big barrier is the cost of the equipment to build and test your nano-based prototype. For example an ebeam lithography system has a price tag of a million dollars, not counting the cost of installation, a facility to put it in, and maintenance. The reality is that not just every Tom, Dick, or Mary can set up a nano lab. What’s a researcher to do? Rent a lab.
Thermoelectric devices can convert heat into electricity. Many temperature sensing devices take advantage of this effect by using electricity to measure temperature in devices called thermocouples. Various researchers are working to produce inexpensive and efficient thermoelectric materials that can change waste heat into electricity.
Recently there was an announcement that researchers at Berkeley had made silicon nanowires that convert heat into electricity using a thermoelectric effect. One possible use of these is to charge portable devices. The wires could be simply be embedded in fabric, so that your jacket could become a charging station, using your body heat to generate the electricity.
Electric power plants fired by fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) produce about a third of the man-made carbon dioxide released into the air in the United States. Several methods exist or are under development to try to reduce the problem. The challenge seems to be developing a method that can be inexpensively and easily retrofitted into existing power plants.
With the holidays coming up I got to wondering how nanotechnology might help Jolly Old St. Nick with his annual gift-giving. I came up with several ideas to make Santa’s life easier.
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer has to retire sometime, so Santa will need some kind of light to guide him on his rounds. To keep a sleigh headlight going he can use an ultra-capacitor, a battery replacement being developed by MIT. Using carbon nanotubes, the capacitor can store ten times as much energy as current hybrid car batteries -- perhaps enough to light Santa’s way around the world. Such an ultra-capacitor would also be light weight, so it won’t overtax his reindeer (who, let’s face it, given Santa’s heft are carrying a pretty big load to begin with).
The news is full of drought stories this autumn. States are fighting legal battles to claim federal water resources. Scientists are predicting that changes to our climate may leave much of the U.S. with multiyear drought for decades to come.
The drought plunging Georgia into a state of emergency this fall set me thinking. How ironic that even states that enjoy miles of coastline are rationing water, truly a case of “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” Could nanotechnology ease the threat of drought by helping to make our ocean water potable?
I recently read about researchers at the University of Michigan who have demonstrated that nanowires can be used as electrodes in organic light emitting diode (OLED) displays, thereby enabling manufacture of larger flexible OLED displays. This started me thinking about how nanotechnology might affect the appearance and function of electronic devices. For example, could a laptop computer display unroll like a portable movie screen or could you detach it from the laptop and attach it to the back of an airline seat with Velcro®? I began to tally up the ways that nanotechnology might change laptops.
With the uncertainty about supply of crude oil, as well as high prices, other sources of fuel are now a hot topic. An interesting option is ethanol, currently made from plants such as corn and sugar cane. Companies and universities are working to develop a process for producing ethanol from many other types of plant material; which may significantly increase the amount of ethanol available as fuel. Nanotechnology may be of help in this effort.
The astronomical price of gas this summer inspired me to look at how nanotechnology might help reduce the cost of driving. I identified two rays of hope: better batteries for cars powered by electricity and hydrogen fuel cells.
Nanotechnology may hold the key to making spaceflight more practical. Advancements in materials to make lightweight solar sails and the cable for the space elevator could significantly cut the cost of reaching orbit and traveling in space, as well as dramatically reducing the amount of rocket fuel used. Also new materials, along with nanosensors and nanorobots could improve the performance of spaceships, spacesuits and equipment used to explore planets and moons, making a big difference on the ‘final frontier.’
Nanotechnology is having an impact on several aspects of the food industry, from how food is grown to how it is packaged. Companies are developing nanomaterials that will make a difference not only in the taste of food, but also in food safety, and the health benefits food delivers.
While being interviewed by a high school class I discovered interesting perspectives on the future of nanotechnology, as well as a surprising lack of attention to the topic in our school textbooks.
For diabetics who have to inject insulin several times a day, or cancer patients experiencing debilitating side effects from treatment, the benefits of improved drug delivery through the application of nanotechnology may be life changing. Drug delivery using nano techniques is helping researchers to target delivery of drugs to diseased cells to avoid side effects, provide drugs such as insulin in pill form, deliver drugs through skin lotions, and even help you avoid catching the common cold.