SALT LAKE CITY — Across the world, researchers are working on big ideas that are incredibly small, and Utah is home to some of the foremost little-big thinkers.
Tucked away in the 208-thousand square foot USTAR James L. Sorenson Molecular Biotechnology Building on the University of Utah (U of U) campus, researchers are working on interdisciplinary projects that will one day dramatically change many aspects of everyday life with the goal of making Utah a global leader in nanotechnology.
These researchers, recruited through the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR) from across the globe, represent the top thought-leaders in developing nanotechnologies. They seek to implement nanotechnology in a myriad of applications including medicine, computing, communications, engineering, materials science, biology, chemistry, energy, security, and defense.
What is Nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology revolves around the researching, development, and implementation of technologies and innovations at the molecular, atomic or subatomic level. Nanotechnology, nanoparticles and all of the other nano words derive from nanometer, a billionth of a meter, or about one 25-millionth of an inch. So small. Really small.
While today's innovators can move electrons to improve the processing power of microchips, one of the first uses of nanotechnology was simply the fabrication of stained glass. Ancient stained-glass makers discovered and perfected putting tiny amounts of gold, cobalt, and silver in the glass, which then produced the colors found in many stained glass windows.
However, today's nano-scientists work with much more sophisticated tools and can make nanoparticles of many different shapes and sizes.
"Nanotechnology is the field of discovery and understanding of the interaction between atoms and bulk material," said Marc Porter, Director of the U of U's Nano Institute and USTAR professor of chemistry and chemical engineering.
The Nano Institute's focus on all things small has already led to some big innovations. Specifically, Porter and his research team focus on breakthroughs to improve medical outcomes through "biosensors." Developed through nano processes, these biosensors detect specific materials and provide early diagnosis of diseases, such as cancer.
"For some diseases, today's detection methods are not very effective, such as for tuberculosis," said Porter. "However, because of the nature of tuberculosis, we can provide a far more effective level of detection deploying nanotechnology to look for the markers for each individual patient and improve medical outcomes."
In this and related work, Porter and his research team have developed novel ways to use spherical, cubic, and rod-shaped gold nanoparticles for the detection of proteins, viruses, toxins, and other disease markers.
In another project, Porter and team members are working on strategies to identify markers in human serum that can be employed for the early diagnosis of pancreas cancer. This cancer has a roughly 50 percent mortality rate and, according to the American Cancer Society, is projected to afflict more than 45,000 new individuals in just 2013 alone. There are no makers today that can be reliably used for to detect this cancer at its early stages of progression or for its recurrence after surgery. This research has the possibility of enabling physicians to detect and treat the cancer at an early enough stage to substantially decrease the mortality rate.
From Detection to Treatment
While Porter's research focuses on detection of diseases and cancer, Hamid Ghandehari, a USTAR professor at the U of U in pharmaceutics, pharmaceutical chemistry and bioengineering focuses his research on use of nanotechnology for the treatment of diseases.
"Our research focuses on using nanotechnology to deliver drugs for cancer patients," Ghandehari said. "We want to make this more effective than chemotherapy with less side effects."
Currently, chemotherapy is delivered in such a way that it affects every cell in the body, with the hope that cancer cells will suffer a worse fate than healthy ones. Often times, however, patients suffer from profound side effects due to the treatment.
Using large polymer molecules, Ghandehari's focus is the development of drug delivery systems or gene treatments targeted to specific cells. These polymers work like vehicles that can only dock with specific cells, preventing the treatment from being delivered to healthy ones, causing less side effects and better outcomes.
"By attaching the drug molecule at the nanoscale level we can target cancer cells," said Ghandehari. "This process allows us to significantly limit the exposure for the rest of the cells."
The anti-cancer drugs attach to compounds composed of chains of polymers. These compounds are able to target cancerous cells, and deliver the cell-killing agents. Furthermore, Ghanderhari's innovative treatments have higher molecular weight than current treatments, which keep the compounds active in the bloodstream longer than conventional pharmaceuticals, thereby also enhancing dose efficacy.
TheraTarget, a spinout company co-founded by Ghandehari (who acts as the Chief Scientific Officer), is based off of this type of research. TheraTarget fulfills the second aspect of USTAR's mission in generating economic development out of innovative research. The company is in the process of commercializing innovations at the U of U, to bring their research from the laboratory to patients throughout the United States.
Nanotechnology Solving Energy Issues
Nanotechnology in the life science sector has a direct link to the future medicine, but nanotechnology also plays a leading role in solving the current energy and environmental challenges we face throughout the world.
Capturing the endless light of the sun more efficiently through nanotechnology is one focus of Rajesh Menon, a USTAR researcher in the U of U's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Menon's research focuses on light-trapping nanostructures on ultra-thin photovoltaic devices. These nanostructures split sunlight into different wavelengths and direct the now separated beams of light onto different cells. This process is achieved through a broadband diffractive optic (called a polychromat) that separates multiple spectral bands and concentrates incident light onto separate absorbers producing far more efficient power generation.
"This can be achieved by increasing the number of spectral bands by more than two and also increasing the geometric concentration. This is, of course, sort of a holy grail in photovoltaics," said Menon.
Specifically, Menon's research reports an increase in power output as high as 42 percent with relatively inexpensive thin-film CIGS solar cells. Since the polychromat may be fabricated over large areas (much like printing newspapers), it is possible to cheaply incorporate such optics into current photovoltaic devices and engineer them to capture more light from each beam.
"The most important advance is that we can utilize optics, constructed at the nano level, that are both efficient and can be mass produced in conjunction with conventional photovoltaic devices to significantly increase the photovoltaic efficiency," said Menon. "Our work is distinct because we can now condition the light, split and concentrate it, before it even reaches the absorption material."
Future of Nanotechnology
Though nanotechnology has existed in various forms for decades, it was not until the mid-2000 that new disciplines and serious scientific attention began to take shape. Nanotechnology holds the keys to many exciting and novel discoveries within the large variety of fields that comprise the nanosciences. It is an exciting time where researchers like Porter, Ghandehari and Menon will continue to make dramatic impacts through impossibly small innovations.
While much of the research will be appreciated for the innovative aspects it brings to society, nanotechnology will also be a significant driver of economic growth. In reality, the significant impacts of nanotechnology have yet to be imagined.
On October 18 the U of U Nano Institute will host the 2013 nanoUtah Conference and Exhibition. The conference will have presentations from international and local leaders in nanoscience and nanotechnology, and fosters collaborations and the exchange of knowledge among scientists, engineers, clinicians, industry leaders, and students. For more information about nanoUtah 2013 visit their website.