Our Spotlight today again shows an example of the very fundamental research that is taking place in labs around the world to lay the foundation for future nanotechnology based devices. It illustrates the very early stage of development and the nature of the fundamental challenges that make up today's 'nanotechnology research. The vision of revolutionary bottom-up nanotechnology is based on a concept of molecular assembly technologies where nanoscale materials and structures self-assemble to microscale structures and finally to macroscopic devices and products. Researchers are a long, long way from realizing this vision but they are busily laying the foundation for nanoscale engineering. Assembling nanoscopic components into macroscopic materials is an appealing goal but one of the enormous difficulties lies in bridging approximately six orders of magnitude that separate the nanoscale from the macroscopic world. Right now, nanotechnology researchers have their hands full just learning how to control a straight chain of nanoparticles.
Using nanoparticles to combat cancer and a host of other diseases is an active area of research for many scientists. For decades, treating cancer has mostly involved injecting patients with toxic drugs. A practice, in which only a fraction of the drugs reach the intended target, killing healthy cells in the process and causing harmful side effects. Previous studies have shown that drug-carrying nanoparticles can accumulate in and attack tumors, in part because of their extremely small size, which helps allow them to pass through cell membranes. However, up until now, existing techniques have meant that targeting agents could only be delivered using spherical or granular shaped particles. Now, a team of scientists have demonstrated that nanoparticles designed with a specific shape, size and surface chemistry are taken up into cells and behave differently within cells depending on the characteristics of the particle.
The demand for the raw materials of the nanotechnology revolution - nanoparticles, carbon nanotubes, fullerenes, quantum dots, etc - is rising explosively and large chemical companies keep expanding their production capacities. These industrial scale systems often depend on precious input materials and energy-hogging processes. However, there are vast amounts of 'useless' natural materials literally lying around - rocks and stones - which could find their way into nanotechnology.Researchers in Germany have made a proof of concept demonstration that using natural nanostructures found in lava rocks is suitable for nanomaterial synthesis and for use in catalysis for production of butadiene and styrene.
The motor proteins of the cytoskeleton accomplish nanotransport tasks by moving 'cargo' along microtubules that are about 25 nm wide but can grow up to 1,000 times as long. Nanotechnology engineers are fascinated by this transport mechanism and several efforts are underway in various labs to unravel and, researchers hope, eventually copy nature's engineering feat. A particularly promising setup consists of surface-attached linear motor proteins that drive the motion of cytoskeletal filaments. Some researchers expect that artificial molecular transport systems which utilize microtubules motility will be an alternative to pressure-driven or electrokinetic flow-based microfluidic devices. Researchers in Germany describe a novel method to characterize the rotational movement of cytoskeletal filaments gliding over motor-coated substrate surfaces. This technique allows exploring the detailed paths that motors take on cytoskeletal filaments. This is also important in understanding situations of heavy intracellular traffic, where motors might have to switch lanes.
You might have seen the news article that made the rounds a few days ago about how the stained glass windows in medieval churches actually were a nanotechnology application capable of purifying air. While this is a pretty cool headline to capture readers' interest, the underlying finding is much more profound and could open up a new direction in catalysis and herald significant changes in the economy and environmental impact of chemical production. One of the great challenges for catalysis is to find catalysts which can work well under visible light. If scientists manage to crack this problem it would mean that we could use sunlight - the ultimate free, abundant and 'green' energy source - to drive chemical reactions. This is in contrast to today's conventional chemical reactions that often require high temperatures and therefore waste a lot of energy.
Photonic crystals are similar to semiconductors, only that the electrons are replaced by photons (i.e. light). By creating periodic structures out of materials with contrast in their dielectric constants, it becomes possible to guide the flow of light through the photonic crystals in a way similar to how electrons are directed through doped regions of semiconductors. The photonic band gap (that forbids propagation of a certain frequency range of light) gives rise to distinct optical phenomena and enables one to control light with amazing facility and produce effects that are impossible with conventional optics. A prominent example of a photonic crystal is the naturally occurring gemstone opal. The problem with artificial opals, which limits their applications, is that they lack in pattern variety and their fabrication requires very expensive equipment and sophisticated processes. In contrast, natural photonic crystals have various patterns that are quite promising structural matrices for creating novel optical devices. One example are peacock feathers, whose iridescent colors are derived from the 2D photonic crystals structure inside the cortex.
The key to using self-assembly as a controlled and directed nanofabrication process lies in designing the components that are required to self-assemble into desired patterns and functions. Self-assembly reflects information coded in individual components - characteristics such as shape, surface properties, charge, polarizability, magnetic dipole, mass, etc. These characteristics determine the interactions among the components and the whole essence of self-assembly arises from these dynamic properties. In this respect, many self-assembled nanostructures show to be responsive to external stimuli such as temperature, pH, or solvent polarity. An exciting field for nanotechnology researchers is the challenge of extending the scope of nanostructures with stimulus-responsive properties towards the fabrication of 'smart' nanoscale materials. New work by Korean scientists demonstrates that simple addition of small guest molecules triggers reversible structural transformation. The novelty of this research is that, so far, switching of material properties triggered by external stimuli via nanoscale objects had not been realized yet.
Remember the movie blockbuster Erin Brockovich? The film is based on a real world legal case that revolves around hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium (VI), used by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company to control corrosion in cooling towers in its Hinkley, CA compressor station. Chromium (VI), a natural metal, is known to be toxic and is recognized as a human carcinogen via inhalation. It also is widely used by industry in the manufacture of stainless steel, welding, painting and pigment application, electroplating, and other surface coating processes. Researchers in Germany now have developed a novel method of multilayer anticorrosion protection including the surface pre-treatment by sonication and deposition of polyelectrolytes and inhibitors. This method results in the formation of a smart polymer nanonetwork for environmentally friendly organic inhibitors.