By: Ashley Duvelius
As the often proclaimed father of nanotechnology, Richard Feynman summed up the field in one question. He posed during his lecture titled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” - “Why cannot we write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin?” Feynman asked this in 1959 and today, researchers are still reeling in its proposed possibilities.
At the time, Feynman sparked debate with the vast possibilities which his talk inferred. He was referring to the manipulation of matter on the atomic and molecular scales. From this concept, the field of nanotechnology was born. Today, researchers in the field of nanotechnology work with materials, devices and other structures with at least one dimension sized from 1 to 100 nanometers (one billionth of a meter or one hundred thousandth of the width of a human hair).
Mark Schulz, PhD and College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) School of Dynamic Systems professor, describes “Nanotechnology is engineering using nanoscale materials. Nanoscale materials have large surface area to volume ratios and often have new properties and better properties than macroscale bulk materials. Therefore, materials and machines that have ‘nano inside’ can have better performance than conventional materials. This makes nanotechnology useful and needed to provide improved technology for society in almost all areas including engineering materials, medicine, computers, health products, sensors and so forth.”
The University of Cincinnati has been involved in nanotechnology for around 15 years, with CEAS significantly beginning its research in 2000. CEAS’ nanotechnology program is a leader nationally and globally because its researchers do full circle research. Full circle means that researchers synthesize carbon nanotubes, and recently graphene; they characterize the material; post-process the material; and use the different forms of material in various applications. Then UC researchers go back to iterate and improve the material for specific applications. Not all universities have the comprehensive facilities, manpower and expertise to design, synthesize, and apply nanoscale materials like UC does.
Nanotechnology research is conducted in various disciplines, such as aerospace, biomedical, civil, computer, electrical, mechanical engineering, and also, in medicine. Nanoscale materials improve the properties of composite materials and plastics which can eventually be used in the production of airplanes, automobiles, and sporting equipment that are lighter, save fuel, and reduce pollution. Nanoparticles are being used in medicine for cancer diagnosis and therapy. Schulz believes nanomedicine will prove to be an extraordinary benefit to society.
UC’s College of Medicine is a major research asset because aside from being an excellent school, its physicians and medical researchers enjoy collaborating with UC engineering, physics, and chemistry researchers. Additionally, the Advanced Materials Characterization Center and Clean Room facilities at CEAS are well-equipped with instrumentation and expert staff to enable such nanotechnology research. Schulz explains, “Key also is CEAS Dean Teik C. Lim, PhD, Senior Associate Dean Frank M. Gerner, PhD, and all of the school directors in CEAS who support nanotechnology. The cross-college collaborative efforts have helped UC develop a leading nanotechnology program.”
Along with Vesselin Shanov, PhD and CEAS School of Energy, Environmental, Biological and Medical Engineering associate professor, Schulz formed the Nanoworld Lab at UC (http://www.min.uc.edu/nanoworldsmart). They refer to it as being the university lab because many faculty members across UC collaborate on projects and focus on several areas of research that are supported by its facilities.
Schulz explains, “Nanoworld produces innovation in engineering and medicine. The research strategy employed to do this is simple. Nanotechnology enables invention. The Nanoworld Lab produces inventions and turns them over to industry for commercialization. Both undergraduate and graduate students work with post-doctoral scholars and researchers in Nanoworld. A dedicated group of about 20 top students perform experiments alongside industry professionals which is yet another reason attributing to Nanoworld’s success.”
Much has already been accomplished since the birth of Nanoworld. Currently, researchers are developing application ideas in composites reinforcement, cancer screening, electromagnetics for electric motors, an elastic electromagnetic smart material, and sensors.
Among the varied Nanoworld projects, the synthesis of carbon nanotubes is the largest area of research under Shanov’s direction. Carbon nanotubes are carbon atoms arranged in hexagonal patterns forming a tube. In fact, UC’s researchers have grown the longest carbon nanotube forests in the world. They aren’t the longest individual nanotubes, but forests of nanotubes. Students are synthesizing carbon nanotube forests and processing the forests into intermediate materials such as nanotube yarn and sheets. The intermediate materials are a new kind of structural and electronic “raw material” that is used to build smart materials for use in devices for engineering and medical purposes.
In relation to carbon nanotubes, Shanov’s students are now making graphene. Graphene is a sheet of carbon hexagonal material whose properties could facilitate the fabrication of transistors and other devices. This material, through nanoscale manipulation, has the potential to pave the way for the development of all-carbon integrated circuits. UC researchers plan to put graphene into applications as varied as composite materials, sensors, electromagnetics, and cancer sensing.
Similarly, researchers also work with magnetic nanoparticles. Magnetic nanoparticles are used to provide superparamagnetic (attracted by the poles of a magnet, but not retaining any permanent magnetism) and anisotropic (having a physical property that has a different value when measured in different directions) magnetic properties that enable unique applications.
Other engineering innovations being developed in Nanoworld include Multi-scale Nanocomposite Materials with breakthrough design limits and Nanoscale Electromagnetic Materials that replace iron and copper for lightweight electric motors. Medical innovations being developed include a SmartNeedle Sensor for cancer screening and Controlled Biodegradable Metal Implants.
It is difficult to say what research will lead to breakthroughs. Intelligent biomedical implants that reduce suffering and cost associated with having multiple surgeries to remove/repair permanent implants could be a medical breakthrough because they enable ultra-lightweight and strong structures to become practical.
Looking to the future, the development of Mobile Microscopic Robots for Human Diagnostics and Therapy could also be a major UC breakthrough. The research objective is to develop simple microscopic robots that circulate in the human vascular system with the ability to diagnose and treat disease. These blood-borne robots may have advantages including physical access to disease sites in the body; the potential for direct targeted diagnosis and therapy; a longer lifetime in the body without being filtered out of the body as nanoparticles are; the robots do not need to go inside of cells; and they have the ability to perform sensing (sample or measure) and actuation functions (deliver drugs, micro-surgery) with greater precision than existing medical devices. Schulz describes, “Our vision is that the development of microscopic robots that work within the body will open a new frontier for mankind to fight disease, much like what landing on the moon did for space science.”
Schulz adds, “I would say nanotechnology takes time, a lot of patience, instrumentation, money, and interdisciplinary research to develop. But the payoff is large. If you look at the investment in nanotechnology around the world, it is huge. For instance, nanotechnology programs and companies in Israel made a $200 million investment and licensed a nanotube synthesis method from the University of Cambridge; in China, Tsinghua University supported by $100 million from Foxcon has already commercialized touch screen displays; in Japan, the University of Tokyo is closely coupled to their composites industry; in Australia, CSIRO and others are receiving millions of dollars for investment opportunities. America must compete globally and so, vertically integrated nanotechnology programs must be developed in America.”
Schulz foresees UC’s nanotechnology research helping in medicine and producing better engineering materials and electrical applications. A spin-off company from UC has already emerged, called General Nano, which manufactures nanoscale materials for aerospace and defense applications. General Nano licenses inventions from UC. Three patents of UC and General Nano’s nanotechnology inventions are currently pending.
“Figuring out nanotechnology takes time. But eventually, many materials and products will contain nanoscale or nanophase components, or be nanostructured. Scaling up to make macroscale products is a challenge because often the properties of the nanoscale material are difficult to transfer to the macroscale. Researchers around the world are working to scale up nano materials for use in everyday products. This is a slow and expensive process but, in time, we will have nanobased materials to build airplanes and cars that are lighter, faster and safer than existing vehicles made using metals or conventional composites,” remarks Schulz on the future of nanotechnology.
Schulz pursued a career in nanotechnology because of its possibilities of breakthroughs in smart materials and multifunctional materials. He is continuing his current research but plans to start a medical device company to take UC biomedical inventions to commercialization. UC is a partner with North Carolina A&T State University and the University of Pittsburgh in the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center (NSF ERC) for Revolutionizing Metallic Biomaterials. Schulz works alongside John Yin, PhD and program manager for the NSF Engineering Research Center for Revolutionizing Metallic Biomaterials, in Nanoworld. Together, they have compiled ideas for the control of corrosion of biodegradable metal implants and sensors for cancer screening. A company called Nanobionics is in the planning stage and is expected to be spun out of UC this year to commercialize these ideas.
The many people working on projects in Nanoworld include: David Mast, PhD and McMicken College of Arts & Sciences (A&S) associate professor of physics; Richard Kleismit, PhD and A&S visiting scholar of physics; Zhongyun Dong, MD, PhD, MED and associate professor of medicine; Sandra Starnes, MD, MED and associate professor of medicine; Sarah Pixley, PhD, MED and associate professor of medicine; and William Heineman, PhD and A&S distinguished professor of chemistry.
Schulz advises future researchers, “You need to work on the research that most interests you, that can have a large impact on life, leading to breakthroughs which can be commercialized. Nanotechnology is a difficult area to work in and it’s not for the faint of heart. Forming partnerships with Dr. Shanov and many other UC faculty members was the key to successfully developing a world-class position in nanotechnology. Building the Nanoworld lab is a significant achievement made possible by many people at UC. The work is highly interdisciplinary and we make advances often by intersecting different technologies and expertise.”
Nanotechnology and "small-space" efforts have become pervasive within the college, such that researchers across all of the disciplines are exploring innovation withinmicroscopic spaces. Ian Papautsky, PhD and CEAS associate professor, leads a UC team of researchers who are currently investigating microfluidics. The team uses “inertial microfluidics” to continuously and selectively collect rare cells, such as circulating tumor cells, based on their size vs. other biomarkers. The application of inertial microfluidics could reduce analysis time and increase selectivity while reducing reliance on antibody-based testing in clinical tests.
“Last year we showed we can selectively isolate prostate cancer cells, but only by running small sample volumes one at a time. Now we show that we can do this continuously,” Papautsky said. “This is exciting because it allows for an entire blood draw to be processed, in continuous matter, in a shorter period of time.”
Chong Ahn, PhD and CEAS School of Electronic and Computing Systems professor, leads research on polymer smart lab-on-a-chip (LOC) with microfluidics (deals with the behavior, precise control and manipulation of fluids that are geometrically constrained to a small, typically sub-millimeter, scale). LOC is one of the most innovative platforms for the better analysis of biochemical molecules which includes immunoassays (a procedure for detecting or measuring specific proteins or other substances) and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA, a sensitive immunoassay that uses an enzyme linked to an antibody or antigen as a marker for the detection of a specific protein, especially an antigen or antibody) for the quantification of a wide range of analytes (substances being analyzed) for serum, plasma and cell lysates (the destruction or decomposition of a cell or other substance). The microfluidics and lab-on-a-chips can be applied to in vitro diagnostics (IVD), ELISA, and point-of-care testing (POCT) clinical diagnostics.
Bridging the gap between such technologies is the research efforts of Murali M. Sundaram, PhD, Director of UC’s Micro and Nano Manufacturing Laboratory and School of Dynamic Systems assistant professor. Sundaram’s lab is engaged in an effort to find a nano-equivalent to common machining techniques like drilling or grinding. He, his students and fellow researchers are currently working on a vibration assisted nano-abrasive machining process to machine a wide range of materials with ultra-precision accuracy. So while the UC Micro and Nano Manufacturing Research Laboratory and Nanoworld are developing innovative methods at microscopic sizes, Sundaram works to move them into real-world applications.
Applying nano and other "small-space" technologies to everyday life is one of the many specialties of Andrew Steckl, PhD and School of Electronics and Computing Systems professor. The electrical engineering professor recently debuted his and UC doctoral student Duk Young Kim’s breakthrough of the low-cost, disposable e-reader. Steckl and Kim demonstrated that paper could be used as a flexible host material for an electrowetting device. Electrowetting (EW) involves applying an electric field to colored droplets within a display in order to reveal content such as type, photographs and video.
“Nothing looks better than paper for reading,” said Steckl. “We hope to have something that would actually look like paper but behave like a computer monitor in terms of its ability to store information. We would have something that is very cheap, very fast, full-color and at the end of the day or the end of the week, you could pitch it into the trash.”
Steckl’s business partner, close colleague and former student, Jason Heikenfeld, is also leading UC in the realm of nano and other "small-spaces." Heikenfeld, PhD, Director of the UC Novel Devices Laboratory and School of Electronics and Computing Systems associate professor, advances on Steckl and Kim’s e-reader research with his development of electrofluidic optics. He is combining liquids with light and UC’s electrofluidic display technology is the first to electrically enhance the appearance of pigments or colors to a level of visual brilliance equal to conventional printed materials.
UC co-sponsors a Nanotechnology Materials and Devices (NMD) Workshop each year which presents recent findings in nanotechnology from around the world. There is no registration fee and it educates students about nanotechnology. The workshop was held in Dayton this year. The Nanoworld web site contains information about UC nanotechnology research and conference information (www.min.uc.edu/nanoworldsmart/conferences). Other labs at CEAS also work in the area of nanotechnology, these nanoengineering labs are listed at (www.ceas.uc.edu/research.html).
Thomas Mantei, PhD and CEAS professor, and F. James Boerio, PhD and CEAS director of the School of Engineering Education, developed undergraduate courses which teach the fundamentals of nanoscale materials synthesis, processing, and basic design for different applications. There are also graduate courses in nanotechnology. Please visit http://onestop.uc.edu/ for a complete listing of courses.
Upon reflection of UC’s journey—not to mention its various “firsts”—into nanospace, Schulz adds, “Persistence and patience is what spurs innovation. Through nanotechnology, UC is trailblazing and road-mapping innovation, translating discoveries to industry, and training a next generation workforce that will be in high demand.“