Small science with a big impact

Guest post by Dr. Éilis McGrath

A smart phone you can roll up and put in your pocket, cloaking devices, faster medical diagnostics and a spray that can make any device or material become waterproof. These may seem like the kinds of technology that only appear in Sci-Fi movies, but with nanotechnology these devices are becoming a reality and some of them even exist already.

Nanoscience is the study of objects at tiny dimensions, specifically at sizes of less than 100 nanometres (nm). 1 nm is about 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair and your finger nail grows at a rate of about 1 nm a second. Because nanoscience is the study of things at a certain size, it encompasses many forms of science and technology, from fighting viruses to building miniature electronics. Therefore nanoscience is critical in the development of future technologies.

Image of transparent screen mock-up
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So what is the future for our electronics and is a flexible phone really possible? Well, the Nokia Nano Morph is said to be gearing up for a release in seven years. It will be fully flexible, self-cleaning and host a range of sensors that will allow the user to interact with the world around them. Here in CRANN, Trinity College Dublin, our scientists are helping to realise this revolution using materials like silver nanowires and graphene. These materials are so small they cannot be seen by the naked eye however, they are very conductive and have the potential to make flexible, transparent screens a reality. Other materials, like conducting oxides that CRANN are working on, could transform the quality, lifespan and efficiency of these kinds of devices.

Our laptops and phones are getting smaller but the amount of information they can store is ever increasing. Nanoscience is a key enabler of this advancement. People want to pay less money for smaller devices with increased functionality and this creates a big problem for the electronics industry. CRANN works with companies like Intel to research and develop new materials which could replace silicon ‘chips’ and transform the amount of memory electronic devices can hold. One route of research being examined is the use of magnets. At one million times smaller than the head of a pin, using these magnets in memory devices enables more information to be held in a much smaller space. Another recent breakthrough, by scientists in University College Cork, has shown that it is possible to manufacture silicon microchips using ‘self-assembly’ methods. This involves using chemistry to manufacture groups of atoms to assemble themselves into whatever pattern or grouping is desired. Using this method microchip production can be made much cheaper with less expensive equipment needed for manufacture. These two breakthroughs will help enable the future of electronics making faster, smaller and cheaper devices a reality.

Invisibility cloaks and waterproof sprays are very novel, nano inspired ideas. Unfortunately, the invisibility cloak is currently in the lab stage but scientists, from the University of Texas at Dallas, have shown the device’s ability to make objects disappear by using the mirage effect that we are familiar with in nature. The ‘cloak’ is made of carbon nanotubes and it is their ability to conduct heat and transfer it to surrounding areas that makes the cloak function.

The waterproof spray, however, is a reality and is made by a company appropriately called ‘Never Wet’. The spray can be used on almost any surface and will make it resistant to liquid using an effect called hydrophobicity. This essentially makes things water repellent through a surface nano coating which forces dirt and water to roll off instead of clinging. It is the same effect that allows lotus leaves to stay clean in muddy water. British Airways currently use hydrophobic coatings on some of their aircraft as keeping the surface of an aeroplane as clean as possible enables better aerodynamics and thus greater fuel efficiency.

CRANN researcher, Jason Jensen, with a scaled up model of a microcantilever

As well as designing smarter electronics, nanoscience is making a big impact in the world of medicine. Designing new advances in treatments for disease and faster diagnostics is where nanoscience may see its biggest impact in our lives. In recent months stories have broken around the world regarding nano advances in medicine; from nano ink tattoos for diabetics that would eradicate the need for blood tests in checking sugar levels to nanoparticles in pilot human trials to fight various forms of cancer in a targeted and less destructive way than current cancer treatments.

CRANN research is also contributing to possible future medical diagnostics. Researchers are working on a device called a microcantilever (pictured above) and this could completely change the way medical diagnoses are made. Currently, blood tests are quite invasive and results can take a long time. The micocantilevers that CRANN scientists are designing aim to use just a pin prick of blood and diagnosis will be reduced from days to hours. The device operates using an array of microcantilevers (like tiny diving boards) to measure biological interactions and growth. This user friendly bio-detection system is extremely small, accurate and portable. It has a broad range of applications and is extremely sensitive, only femtogram or pictogram, pg – fg (10-12 – 10-15 g) amounts of a disease or bacteria needs to be present to be identified. One femtogram weighs about 1,000 times less than a micron-size drop of water or about the weight of an E. coli bacterium.

There are big challenges in the future of the electronics and medical diagnostics sector. Although they may be tiny, nano solutions are proving to be the way forward for these industries. Nanotechnology is linked to over 120,000 jobs in Ireland, mainly in ICT, pharmaceutical and medical devices sectors. Thus research in centres like CRANN is vital to ensuring the product development and competitiveness required to keep these industries in Ireland.

Dr. Éilis McGrath is currently works for CRANN with the outreach, communications and technical marketing team. The Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices (CRANN) is located in Trinity College Dublin and partners with University College Cork. For more information visit www.crann.tcd.ie or @cranntcd.

Images: Courtesy of CRANN

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