Friday, December 10, 2010

Nanobots: Truth is “Cooler” than Fiction

I am often proven wrong (just ask my wife), but usually not so quickly.  This time it took only 4 days.

On Tuesday, at the request of the NRC Education and Outreach Office’s Joyce Palmer, I spoke to a group of students who make up the Rockin' Robots, a FIRST LEGO League team from Faith Lutheran School in Marietta.  In particular, these elementary students are tasked, through the 2010 Body Forward Challenge, with exploring “the cutting-edge world of Biomedical Engineering to discover innovative ways to repair injuries, overcome genetic predispositions, and maximize the body's potential, with the intended purpose of leading happier and healthier lives.”  Joyce wanted to know if I could address some of their questions related to bionanotechnology and provide a dose of reality.  I prepared myself to dash water on their images of nanorobots coursing through the bloodstream fixing problems and keeping us fit and healthy.  I remember thinking the movie Fantastic Voyage (based on the Isaac Asimov novel) was really cool at their age (and it had Raquel Welch in it).

I listened carefully, and with growing amazement, as the student leader of the team described their plan to use synthetic sandcastle worm glue to improve the healing of broken bones in the body.  This concept is based on the research of Russell Stewart (University of Utah).  He went on to explain that they would target the site of the breakage by coupling the delivery system with antibodies to osteoprotegerin, which is produced in the body to stimulate bone growth and increase bone density.  Finally, a liposome delivery system was chosen for the project.  My preconceived notions took another hit when I read on the team’s website (Osteo Repairo, a play on a Hogwarts spell) that they “first thought we would use nanobots to get there because they are cool and really small but then we kicked things around …and asked what could bond with the antibodies and he [Team Coach Dr. Shawn Jobe] explained about liposomes. Some of us have never heard of liposomes. Zach really thought they were awesome and Ethan built a model of one.  After that we were all in with liposomes as a delivery method.”

Clearly, these students did not require me to lecture them on the difference between the promises of nanotechnology and the hype that is often used in both fiction and marketing.  They were well-grounded in the facts and only needed me to clarify some of the subtleties (although I confessed to them that I am not an expert in the specific areas of their research).  We discussed options for getting the treatment into the bloodstream (including microneedle patches), and I cautioned them that antibodies can have non-specific binding that could lead to unwanted delivery consequences.

Finally, my crow-eating was complete when I read this morning about a new drug delivery concept from the Laboratory for Nanobioelectronics at UC San Diego that involves “the directed delivery of common polymeric and liposomal drug carriers using catalytic nanomotors.”  In particular, the futuristic image of an autonomous nanomachine, the specific image I tried to minimize in my discussion with the students, is now one step closer to reality.  As lead researcher Joseph Wang puts it: “We are all motivated towards realizing the vision of the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage vision and by the potential to enhance medical treatment.”

I guess the Rockin’ Robots are not the only ones who think nanobots are “cool and really small.”

Friday, December 3, 2010

It's All Chemistry

I attended the Georgia Tech School of Mechanical Engineering's Gegenheimer Lecture on Innovation yesterday.  While the speaker, GT alumna Prof. Robin Murphy (Texas A&M), presented an interesting discussion on the use of robots in search and rescue, with considerable attention paid to the interaction between humans and robots, it was the student’s question I happened to hear on my way out that really attracted my attention. This student wanted to know, in the spirit of innovation, if there was something the speaker believed but that others may not.

I found this a thought-provoking inquiry, and spent the next several moments during my walk back to my office considering my own beliefs (scientifically speaking) and how they mesh within the larger scholarly community.  In particular, I thought back about 10 years, during the early days of the current nanotechnology revolution and of my impression at that time, with a soupcon of righteous indignation as a card-carrying chemist, that this “new” technology is nothing more than chemistry with a fancy new name.  While I have since softened this stance as I gain more knowledge of the breadth of this enterprise, fundamentally I still believe that chemistry contains the elemental principles behind most of nanoscience and nanoengineering.  Particles, materials, surfaces, and even devices are all manifestations of inter-atomic and inter-molecular forces (the domain of chemistry) that take on added importance when the materials themselves are on the same scale as their constituent components.  The reason a gecko can walk on the ceiling is because the combined van der Waals forces between the millions of nano-sized spatulae on its feet and the ceiling surface are greater than the opposing force of gravity.  This is the take-home message I drill into students: There is nothing scientifically new that occurs on the nano-scale, but rather the same interactions and forces we have known about since the advent of organized science take on added magnitude compared to the macro-scale forces.

The centrality of chemistry in our everyday lives was even used by my American Chemical Society colleague Don Hicks when he created a viral marketing campaign (see the bumper magnet below) a few years ago to spur public recognition of the value of our science.

All of this makes the news article I read earlier this week even more grating.  It seems a research team from the University of Missouri has developed a new process for gold nanoparticle synthesis that avoids the toxic reagents normally used in such reactions.  Instead, the researchers discovered that phytochemicals found in cinnamon (yes, that spice that is omnipresent in our kitchens this time of year) can act as effective reducing agents for turning gold salts into gold nanoparticles.  This green process is wonderful and I applaud their ingenuity.  However I was taken aback by this assessment:  "The procedure we have developed is non-toxic," Kannan said. "No chemicals are used in the generation of gold nanoparticles, except gold salts. It is a true 'green' process." 

This reminded me of the challenge by the Royal Society of Chemistry a few years ago for anyone to produce a material that is “chemical-free.”  Needless to say, no one has claimed the prize.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Milestone in Nanotechnology History

I know that I have not posted any material lately, as I have been concentrating on the NRC's other modes of communication (Facebook, LinkedIn, and our Newsletter), but I could not pass up an opportunity to reference one of the major milestones in the short history of nanotechnology: the 25 year anniversary of the discovery of buckminsterfullerene at Rice University by Smalley, Curl, and Kroto.

Building blocks of nanotechnology to be named National Historic Chemical Landmark

There is a particular resonance for achievement of this status this year, as the base material of the fullerenes (carbon) is the same as that of graphene, which was just recognized with awarding of the Nobel Prize to Geim and Novoselov

On a personal note, when I was visiting potential graduate schools in 1984, I happened to be at Harvard University on the same day as a seminar by Prof. Rick Smalley.  I cannot recall what the topic of the seminar was (perhaps early experiments with buckyballs), but I do remember the Harvard faculty I met with encouraging me to attend because Smalley was "doing great things."  I guess the 1996 Nobel Prize committee agreed.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Can You Hear Me Now?

Interested in the goings on of the Nanotechnology Research Center? Now there is no excuse for being uninformed!  During the last few months I have been busy, along with my NRC colleagues, creating several new mechanisms for communicating NRC events, news, and information to users, principal investigators, staff, and friends of the NRC.

Those of you who have been following this blog are already aware of our Facebook page, which recently passed the 200 fans mark.  While this number pales in comparison to the more than 7 million fans of Justin Bieber, you may be surprised to know that only one-third of these individuals are from the Atlanta area, and nearly 20% are from outside the United States.  Most of these NRC fans are not users of the facility, but are checking in to read the nanotechnology-related articles, see what seminars and conferences are taking place, and view the photos that are posted.

We have recently added a group on LinkedIn to complement the Facebook page and reach members of that network.  The LinkedIn site is designed to reach professionals in the field, and to provide nano-business information and job postings, as well as Georgia Tech nanotechnology-tagged press releases.  Both the Facebook and LinkedIn sites provide an opportunity for true social networking, with discussion topics and news items supplied by friends and users.  There is not a high level of this activity yet, but I am hopeful that I will soon not be the only one contributing to the conversation.

The NRC website was also recently redesigned and reorganized to make it easier for visitors to locate relevant information.  It is also the home for archived NRC newsletters.  This monthly compendium of short items about our research, facilities, education, and staff news is sent via email to all users, PIs and staff members.  If you wish to get on the mailing list, just send me a request.

Finally, most of the speakers in the Nano@Tech seminar series and the NanoFANS symposia are filmed and the videos (MPEG files or streaming video) are available on the SMARTech website for viewing or downloading. While on-site attendance is usually fewer than 100 people, the past three years of these seminars (nearly 50 in all) have been viewed hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of additional times by interested parties from all over the globe.

In our super-connected world, information can be disseminated and conversations shared not just among local communities, but literally with the entire planetary population.  I know that we are not reaching everyone yet, and I am usually one step behind the cutting edge, but I welcome your comments and suggestions so that the NRC can continue to improve our communications efforts.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Nanotechnology is a popular topic these days, but I was nonetheless surprised (and pleased) when the Georgia Tech Golden Isles Alumni Club selected me as the invited speaker for their spring meeting last week in Brunswick, Georgia.  Jane Stoner, who coordinates the clubs and speakers bureau of the GT Alumni Association, told me that despite there being several distinguished Tech faculty who speak about nanotechnology, the club was intrigued by my topic “Nanotechnology: What’s the Big Deal about Small Things?”  I used my presentation to illustrate the unique phenomena that occur at the nanoscale, their resulting commercial applications, and several Georgia Tech innovations.  I also explained the novel business model behind Tech’s Nanotechnology Research Center, highlighting the NRC as a valuable resource both for Tech and the outside academic and business communities.  I had many pleasant interactions with the more than 70 attendees during both the initial reception and after the question/answer session.  These Tech alumni are a very loyal group and great ambassadors for the institution.

The highlight of the evening for me was the opportunity to meet and speak with the outstanding high school students from the area who will be entering as Georgia Tech freshmen in the fall.  This group included some students from the 2010 graduating class of Glynn Academy, one of the oldest public schools in the country that has been in continuous operation since 1788.  I had extended conversations with Evan Weaver and Alexander Vakili, two students who are what you might call “scary smart.”  I was awed by their intelligence and poise, and impressed that at the age of 17 or 18 they are such motivated and self-directed learners.  Their questions about nanoscale science and engineering were astute and knowledgeable, and clearly this was a subject with which they were familiar and comfortable.

In addition, I had an opportunity to share some reminiscences of Frank Saffold who came to the meeting in Brunswick from St. Mary’s, Georgia.  Mr. Saffold, who graduated Tech in 1941 (EE), was honored as the senior alum at the event.  Nearing 90 years old, Mr. Saffold regaled me with tales of working on transformers for WWII aircraft shortly after his Tech graduation.  He also was involved in the early development of radar in the 1940s and 1950s.  What surprised and pleased me most, however, was when I glanced in his direction and observed that he was taking notes during my talk.  I don’t know if Frank Saffold will make contributions to the field of nanotechnology, but it was gratifying to meet some of the future scientists and engineers who most certainly will.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Nanotechnology and Your Health

When making public presentations on nanotechnology applications and commercialization, I am often asked about regulatory issues, potential health effects, and environmental impacts of nanotechnology.  This topic was recently covered in the April 2010 session of the CDC’s Public Health Grand Rounds titled “Preventing Adverse Health Effects from Nanotechnology."  The Grand Rounds is a monthly seminar series devoted to education and discussion of public health issues, with highlights of current research and suggestions for future work.

This program is a good primer on the subject matter and includes input from NIH and academic researchers, including Georgia Tech’s Prof. Bill Hunt.  I was a bit surprised during the question/answer session when several physicians and public health professionals thanked the speakers for educating them, with the implication that they were not familiar with some of the basic information on nanotechnology.  I guess it is an occupational hazard (not one requiring regulations) that you tend to think others are familiar with your own field of study.

It was also a reminder for me that current commercial products with nanotechnology components, and the components themselves, are already covered by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, albeit for “fine analogues”.  For example, carbon nanotubes are regulated as fine graphite, while the EPA’s rules about pesticides govern products containing nanosilver that claim antimicrobial properties.  As the video makes clear, this is a stop-gap approach, which does not effectively address the fact that the physical properties, environmental fate, and toxicology of nanomaterials can be quite different from their parent materials.  Various NIH centers, and many others within the National Nanotechnology Initiative, have devoted resources (limited as they may be) to studying environmental and health impacts.  In particular, I want to mention the GoodNanoGuide which is an international collaboration to develop best practices for occupational handling of nanoscale material.

Finally, I believe an important distinction was omitted during the discussion.  It is agreed that deleterious effects of nanotechnology could occur because some nanoparticles have the potential to interact negatively with cells and tissues within the human body when inhaled, ingested, or exposed directly to skin.  However, this is not the entirety of nanotechnology research and commercial efforts.  In fact, the majority of research at the NRC and within the facilities associated with the NNIN is based on top-down (as opposed to bottom-up) approaches for the creation of nanoscale enabled or enhanced electronic, optical, or mechanical devices.  Since the nanoscale components and materials are formed and contained within the fabricated object, with normal use such devices do not pose the same risks as particulate nanomaterials.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


In the nearly three years that I have been a technical liaison for the Nanotechnology Research Center (NRC), I have spoken to hundreds and perhaps thousands of potential users of our facility, as well as other interested individuals including students, teachers, scientists, professors, businessmen, alumni, and potential donors.  These interactions have become even more common since the Marcus Nanotechnology Building was dedicated nearly one year ago.  I don’t think a week (perhaps even a day) goes by without the presence of some group touring the building, led by myself or one of my NRC colleagues.

For me, one of the common elements of these talks, tours, and general discussions has been my struggle to convey the unique nature of the NRC’s operation.  The concept of an open facility that is available to users from outside its home university is so unusual in my experience and that of those I am speaking with that I have tried to come up with a comparable business that functions using a similar model.  Over the years I have mentioned the do-it-yourself Hobby Shops found on many military bases, and I used to even show a short advertising video that describes a business eerily similar to the NRC if you substitute the terms “cleanroom” for “auto shop” and “processing staff” for “auto mechanic.”  Even the combination of doing your own work or paying for service is preserved.  Still, it was a bit of a stretch.

Now, a recent article in the New York Times titled “Inventors Wanted. Cool Tools Provided.” (4/11/2010) describes TechShop, a do-it-yourself workshop (actually a chain of them) in the San Francisco Bay area that is much closer to the mark.  As described on the TechShop website:
TechShop is a 15,000 square-foot membership-based workshop that provides members with access to tools and equipment, instruction, and a community of creative and supportive people so they can build the things they have always wanted to make.
According to TechShop chief executive Mark Hatch (as quoted in the NYT article):
Making things is core to who we are as Americans. We are inventors. We are creators. Once you give people access to the tools, there will be a resurgence of creativity and innovation.
For a monthly access fee, members can take classes and use the equipment for macro-scale fabrication or use their consulting services for assistance with the work.  Think lathes, milling machines, and welders instead of mask aligners, plasma etchers, and electron microscopes.
You can think of TechShop like a fitness club, but with tools and equipment instead of exercise equipment...TechShop is perfect for inventors, makers, hackers, tinkerers…, and anyone else who wants to be able to make things that they dream up but don't have the tools, space or skills.
I couldn’t have created better marketing copy myself.  If you can understand the appeal and utility of TechShop, then the role filled by the Georgia Tech NRC and the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network becomes obvious.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Something to Share

I am left speechless by this short film.  I am humbled by it's beauty -- both the simplicity in the natural world around us, and in the skill of the filmmaker that created this representation.  Watch and enjoy.

Nature by Numbers

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


As an ACS member, I receive Chemical and Engineering News, a weekly magazine.  I usually flip through the issue quickly, looking through awards and obituaries.  But then, instead of reading the rest of the magazine while it is still timely, I usually place it aside until I have amassed a pile consisting of several weeks or months of issues. I brought along several of these back issues to peruse on a recent plane trip, hoping to discover a few items from the world of nanotechnology. I was not disappointed, and in no particular order, this is what I found.

1.  Despite the warnings about the unknown interactions of nanoparticles and human physiology, those who work in this field and who should know better are not taking the minimum precautions necessary when studying these materials.  According to a recent report, up to one-quarter of researchers are not using the proper (or any) protective measures when working with potentially inhalable nanomaterials.  If we don’t want the public to have unnecessary nanophobia, we scientists need to be careful about providing justifiable reasons for these fears.

2.  Although the president’s overall 2011 budget request is flat, it does include a healthy 5.6% increase for non-defense research and development.  However, specific interagency funding for the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) stayed constant, with only a 0.1% increase from 2010 to 2011.  If you dig deeper, however, you see that large increases in nanotechnology funding will occur in energy (DOE), life sciences (NIH and FDA), and environment (EPA).  This is being offset by decreases to defense, NSF, and NIST nanotechnology funding.  Much of the increased money will go to research on the environmental, health, and safety aspects of nanotechnology (see above).

3.  The NNIN education office at Georgia Tech is considering the purchase of a table-top scanning electron microscope.  As part of the selection process, Nancy Healy has looked at several potential models and recently showed me some amazing pictures of butterfly wings and magnesium crystalline material.  I was awed by nature’s beauty which lies so close yet is hidden and impossible to see until revealed by electron beam technology.  If your reaction to these images is the same as mine, then you will want to purchase a new coffee-table book, No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale, by Felice Fankel and George Whitesides, which was recently reviewed in C&ENews.  My birthday is still many months away, but this book is on my wish list.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What a Show

Last Thursday night the Nanotechnology Research Center put on quite a production.  More than 20 Georgia Tech (NRC and EII) individuals, along with another 10 from some local NRC user companies, collaborated to host a Field Trip for the Technology Association of Georgia (TAG) at the Marcus Nanotechnology Building.  After a welcome by TAG President Tino Mantella and an introduction by NRC Director Dr. Jim Meindl, the nearly 80 guests had opportunities to explore five areas of nanotechnology, from research to commercialization.

A behind-the-scenes tour of the Marcus building showed the attendees what is so unique about the cleanroom and its supporting infrastructure, and how this is important for conducting research at the nanoscale.  Since the visitors could not go into the cleanroom, a live audio/video link was used to conduct a demonstration of photolithographic pattern transfer, one of the key steps in fabrication.  We were able to demonstrate some advanced imaging tools, atomic force microscopy and scanning electron microscopy (thanks to Hitachi), which allow researchers to study and measure samples with nanometer resolution.  Attendees also had an opportunity to participate in some hands-on activities used in nano-education and outreach and to examine nano-enabled commercial products.  In addition, exhibitors from Axion Biosystems, NanoGrip Technologies, Claro Chemical, nGimat, and OpenCell were on hand to explain their technologies and showcase their prototypes or products to the assembled technology professionals.

Five groups of attendees rotated among the stations with clock-work precision, aided by able tour guides.  Even though some of the lighting went out early on in the evening, the enthusiasm of both guests and hosts was not dimmed.  As the formal program came to an end, the house lights came on just in time for a reception and additional networking.  Everyone, hosts and guests alike, departed feeling enlightened and pleased with the performance.