Bionics - a word formed from biology and electronics - has become a quickly expanding research field, exploring ways and materials to bridge the interface between electronics and biology. Basically, there are three levels of biocommunications where electronics and biology could interface: molecular, cellular and skeletal. For any implanted bionic material it is the initial interactions at the biomolecular level that will determine longer term performance. While bionics is often associated with skeletal level enhancements, electronic communication with living cells is of interest with a view to improving the results of tissue engineering or the performance of implants such as bionic ears or eyes. Researchers have worked for more than 20 years on interfacing neurons and silicon devices. Analysis of the electro-physiological activity of neurons could one day enable scientists to develop artificial prostheses for bypassing injured zones and restore brain functionality, or to realize neuro-diagnostic tools for monitoring the reaction of biological neurons to selected chemical species or newly developed drugs. Making another step in this direction, researchers in Europe have now demonstrated the possibility of integrating living neural cells and organic semiconductor thin-films made of a few monolayers of pentacene.
In recent years, great progress has been made in the synthesis and application studies of hybrid nanomaterial systems involving carbon nanotubes (CNTs). Efforts involve the alteration of physical properties of CNTs via the use of organic, inorganic, and biological species to produce functionalized CNTs for further applications. In one such hybrid system, aligned CNT templates serve as a natural 3D scaffold ('CNT forests'). Preferential assembly of nanoparticles onto targeted locations in this 3D scaffold creates novel hybrid nanomaterial systems with a unique architecture comprised of different functional components. For example, these CNT forests could serve as a template for controlled assembly of various semiconducting nanoparticles such as quantum dots. The resulting hybrid nanomaterial has the effect of changing both optical and electronic properties of the CNTs.
Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) have been widely used as electrodes for chemical and biological sensing applications and many other electrochemical studies. With their unique one-dimensional molecular geometry of a large surface area coupled with their excellent electrical properties, CNTs have become important materials for the molecular engineering of electrode surfaces where the development of electrochemical devices with region-specific electron-transfer capabilities is of paramount importance. It has been demonstrated that carbon nanotubes enhance the electrochemical activity of biomolecules and promote the electron-transfer reactions of redox proteins, such as myoglobin, cyctochrome c, and microperoxidase MP-11. The enhanced electrochemical activity and electron transfer rate at CNT electrodes have been widely believed to arise from the nanotube tips. However, no convincing experimental evidence has been obtained to prove that the CNT tip is more electrochemically active than its sidewall. Contradicting this common belief, researchers have now found that, surprisingly, the electrochemistry at carbon nanotube electrodes is not always facilitated by the nanotube tip. In fact, the relative electrochemical sensitivity of the nanotube tip and sidewall varies for different electrochemical probes proceeding with different reaction mechanisms.
Nanotechnology's much-touted notion of bottom-up fabrication - the key concept behind every idea and model of advanced nanotechnologies - so far doesn't have much to do with assembly-line style of manufacturing; rather, it relies on natural self-assembly processes. The stability of covalent bonds enables the chemical synthesis of almost arbitrary configurations of up to 1000 atoms. Larger molecules, molecular aggregates, and forms of organized matter more extensive than molecules cannot be synthesized bond-by-bond. Self-assembly is one strategy for organizing matter on these larger scales. Nevertheless, as a wholly novel way to manufacture and create new materials, self-assembly is of fundamental importance for the future of a myriad of technologies. While there is no doubt self-assembly works, as evidenced by the world around us, scientists have just begun to understand and devise working examples of self-assembly. Much of this work has been at the millimeter and micron scales were it is relatively easy to fabricate components for assembly. A recent paper details a general method, using microcontact printing, for modifying cubic building blocks with nanoscale dimensions. The controlled assembly of metallic nanoparticles remains a challenge and this work provides a novel functional example to study and build upon.
Regenerative medicine is an area in which stem cells hold great promise for overcoming the challenge of limited cell sources for tissue repair. Stem cell research is being pursued in laboratories all over the world in the hope of achieving major medical breakthroughs. Scientists are striving to create therapies that rebuild or replace damaged cells with tissues grown from stem cells and offer hope to people suffering from cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, spinal-cord injuries, and many other disorders. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent. That means that during normal embryogenesis human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) can differentiate into any of the more than 220 cell types in the adult body. Researchers have now developed a new methodology to enhance the vascular differentiation of hESCs by incorporating growth factor-releasing micro- and nanoparticles in embryoid bodies.
Nanomaterial-based drug-delivery and nanotoxicology are two of the areas that require sophisticated methods and techniques for characterizing, testing and imaging nanoparticulate matter inside the body. Especially the potential risk factors of certain nanomaterials have become a heated topic of discussion recently. Most, if not all, toxicological studies on nanoparticles rely on current methods, practices and terminology as gained and applied in the analysis of micro- and ultrafine particles and mineral fibers. The development of novel imaging techniques that can visualize local populations of nanoparticles at nanometer resolution within the structures of cells - without destroying or damaging the cell - are therefore important. Researchers in the U.S. have now demonstrated that at ultrasonic frequencies, intracellular nanomaterial cause sufficient wave scattering that a probe outside the cell can respond to. This ultrasonic holography technique provides a non-invasive way of looking inside a cell.
A fast-growing body of nanotechnology research is dedicated to nanoscale motors and molecular machinery. The results of these studies are spectacular: well-designed molecules or supramolecules show various movements upon exposure to various stimuli, such as molecular shuttles, molecular elevators and molecular motors. So far, however, nobody has been able to directly observe the movements of these molecular machines and utilize the mechanical work done by them. Now, an international group of researchers have succeeded in amplifying the minuscule change in structures at a molecular level caused by an external stimulus (light) to a macroscopic change through a cooperative effect of liquid crystals. Using liquid-crystalline elastomers (LCEs) ? unique materials having both properties of liquid crystals (LCs) and elastomers ? the scientists have successfully developed new photomechanical devices, including the first light-driven plastic motor. In other words, with this novel material the energy from light can be directly converted into mechanical work without the aid of batteries, electric wires, or gears.
One of the true nanotechnologies that pre-dates the explosion of the popular use of the word during the past few years is Atomic Layer Deposition (ALD). This gas phase chemical process is used to create extremely thin coatings only a few nanometers thick which can be deposited in a precisely controlled way. Initially used as a technique for making a specific type of light display (electroluminescent display) smaller and more efficient, the ALD process was invented and patented by Tuomo Suntola and his co-workers in Finland in 1974 (co-incidentally, this is the year that the term 'nanotechnology' was first defined by Norio Taniguchi). The fundamental notion behind Atomic Layer Deposition is rather simple: It is a process by which an atomic layer of material can be affixed to a surface material one layer at a time. By depositing one layer per cycle, ALD offers extreme precision in ultra-thin film growth since the number of cycles determines the number of atomic layers and therefore the precise thickness of deposited film.