Tag Archives: Miles O’Brien

Investigating nanoparticles and their environmental impact for industry?

It seems the Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (CEINT) at Duke University (North Carolina, US) is making an adjustment to its focus and opening the door to industry, as well as, government research. It has for some years (my first post about the CEINT at Duke University is an Aug. 15, 2011 post about its mesocosms) been focused on examining the impact of nanoparticles (also called nanomaterials) on plant life and aquatic systems. This Jan. 9, 2017 US National Science Foundation (NSF) news release (h/t Jan. 9, 2017 Nanotechnology Now news item) provides a general description of the work,

We can’t see them, but nanomaterials, both natural and manmade, are literally everywhere, from our personal care products to our building materials–we’re even eating and drinking them.

At the NSF-funded Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (CEINT), headquartered at Duke University, scientists and engineers are researching how some of these nanoscale materials affect living things. One of CEINT’s main goals is to develop tools that can help assess possible risks to human health and the environment. A key aspect of this research happens in mesocosms, which are outdoor experiments that simulate the natural environment – in this case, wetlands. These simulated wetlands in Duke Forest serve as a testbed for exploring how nanomaterials move through an ecosystem and impact living things.

CEINT is a collaborative effort bringing together researchers from Duke, Carnegie Mellon University, Howard University, Virginia Tech, University of Kentucky, Stanford University, and Baylor University. CEINT academic collaborations include on-going activities coordinated with faculty at Clemson, North Carolina State and North Carolina Central universities, with researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Environmental Protection Agency labs, and with key international partners.

The research in this episode was supported by NSF award #1266252, Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology.

The mention of industry is in this video by O’Brien and Kellan, which describes CEINT’s latest work ,

Somewhat similar in approach although without a direction reference to industry, Canada’s Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) is being used as a test site for silver nanoparticles. Here’s more from the Distilling Science at the Experimental Lakes Area: Nanosilver project page,

Water researchers are interested in nanotechnology, and one of its most commonplace applications: nanosilver. Today these tiny particles with anti-microbial properties are being used in a wide range of consumer products. The problem with nanoparticles is that we don’t fully understand what happens when they are released into the environment.

The research at the IISD-ELA [International Institute for Sustainable Development Experimental Lakes Area] will look at the impacts of nanosilver on ecosystems. What happens when it gets into the food chain? And how does it affect plants and animals?

Here’s a video describing the Nanosilver project at the ELA,

You may have noticed a certain tone to the video and it is due to some political shenanigans, which are described in this Aug. 8, 2016 article by Bartley Kives for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) online news.

A breath-based and handheld diagnostic device

Researcher Perena Gouma and her team at Stony Brook University (New York, US) are hoping that eventually their device will be available over the counter so anyone will be able to perform a preliminary diagnostic test as casually as you take a breath. From the May 7, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

You blow into a small valve attached to a box that is about half the size of your typical shoebox and weighs less than one pound. Once you blow into it, the lights on top of the box will give you an instant readout. A green light means you pass (and your bad breath is not indicative of an underlying disease; perhaps it’s just a result of the raw onions you ingested recently); however, a red light means you might need to take a trip to the doctor’s office to check if something more serious is an issue.

Here’s a bit more about the device and the researchers’ hopes in a video from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) featuring the NSF’s Miles O’Brien as the reporter,

O’Brien in his May 7, 2012 article for the NSF’s Science Nation online magazine describes the technology,

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Professor Perena Gouma and her team at Stony Brook University in New York developed a sensor chip that you might say is the “brain” of the breathalyzer. It’s coated with tiny nanowires that look like microscopic spaghetti and are able to detect minute amounts of chemical compounds in the breath. “These nanowires enable the sensor to detect just a few molecules of the disease marker gas in a ‘sea’ of billions of molecules of other compounds that the breath consists of,” Gouma explains. This is what nanotechnology is all about.

The manufacturing process that creates the single crystal nanowires is called “electrospinning.” It starts with a liquid compound being shot from a syringe into an electrical field. The electric field crystallizes the inserted liquid into a tiny thread or “wire” that collects onto an aluminum backing. Gouma says enough nanowire can be produced in one syringe to stretch from her lab in Stony Brook, N.Y. to the moon and still be a single grain (monocrystal).

“There can be different types of nanowires, each with a tailored arrangement of metal and oxygen atoms along their configuration, so as to capture a particular compound,” explains Gouma. “For example, some nanowires might be able to capture ammonia molecules, while others capture just acetone and others just the nitric oxide. Each of these biomarkers signal a specific disease or metabolic malfunction so a distinct diagnostic breathalyzer can be designed.”

Gouma also says the nanowires can be rigged to detect infectious viruses and microbes like Salmonella, E. coli or even anthrax. “There will be so many other applications we haven’t envisioned. It’s very exciting; it’s a whole new world,” she says.

I think most (if not all) of the handheld diagnostic projects I’ve covered have been fluids-based, i.e., they need a sample of saliva, blood, urine, etc. to perform their diagnostic function. I believe this is the first breath-based project I’ve seen.

Small boxes in your bloodstream

The boxes in question self-assemble although why anyone would consider the image of small boxes in one’s bloodstream appealing escapes me. Well, we are talking about engineers and mathematicians so perhaps it’s understandable. From the April 23, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

… now, interdisciplinary research by engineers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., and mathematicians at Brown University in Providence, R.I., has led to a breakthrough showing that higher order polyhedra can indeed fold up and assemble themselves.

“What is remarkable here is not just that a structure folds up on its own, but that it folds into a very precise, three-dimensional shape, and it happens without any tweezers or human intervention,” says David Gracias, a chemical and biomolecular engineer at Johns Hopkins. “Much like nature assembles everything from sea shells to gem stones from the bottom up, the idea of self-assembly promises a new way to manufacture objects from the bottom up.”

Here’s a video from the US National Science Foundation about the work being done by David Gracias and his colleague at Brown University, mathematician Govind Menon,

Miles O’Brien of the NSF’s Science Nation magazine notes in his April 23, 2012 article that there are many applications for these structures,

Imagine thousands of precisely structured, tiny, biodegradable, boxes rushing through the bloodstream en route to a sick organ. Once they arrive at their destination, they can release medicine with pinpoint accuracy. That’s the vision for the future. For now, the more immediate concern is getting the design of the structures just right so that they can be manufactured with high yields.

“Our process is also compatible with integrated circuit fabrication, so we envision that we can use it to put silicon-based logic and memory chips onto the faces of 3-D polyhedra. Our methodology opens the door to the creation of truly three-dimensional ‘smart’ and multi-functional particles on both micro- and nano- length scales,” says Gracias.

Here’s more about the structures themselves, as mentioned in the video and in O’Brien’s article,

Menon’s team at Brown began designing these tiny 3-D structures by first flattening them out. They worked with a number of shapes, such as 12-sided interconnected panels, which can potentially fold into a dodecahedron shaped container. “Imagine cutting it up and flattening out the faces as you go along,” says Menon. “It’s a two-dimensional unfolding of the polyhedron.”

And not all flat shapes are created equal; some fold better than others. “The best ones are the ones which are most compact. There are 43,380 ways to fold a dodecahedron,” notes Menon.

The researchers developed an algorithm to sift through all of the possible choices, narrowing the field to a few compact shapes that easily fold into 3-D structures. Menon’s team sent those designs to Gracias and his team at Johns Hopkins who built the shapes, and validated the hypothesis.

“We deposit a material in between the faces and the edges, and then heat them up, which creates surface tension and pulls the edges together, fusing the structure shut,” explains Gracias. “The angle between adjacent panels in a dodecahedron is 116.6 degrees and in our process, pentagonal panels precisely align at these remarkably precise angles and seal themselves; all on their own.”

As noted earlier, I’m not thrilled with the idea of tiny boxes in my bloodstream but, analogy aside, the medical applications are appealing. As for Gracias’ smart and multifunctional particles, I look forward to hearing more about them.