Bees carry out important work by pollinating flowers—they move pollen from one part of the flower to another or between flowers. They contribute something like $29 billion dollars to the farm economy in the US alone. For a number of reasons the bee population is in decline and that is bad. One solution to the loss of these important pollinators are tiny drones that are built to go from flower to flower where they pick up and drop off pollen. Scientists in Japan lead by Eijiro Miyako at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) Nanomaterial Research Institute have designed and tested a tiny drone that can pollinate flowers. The drone has material that acts like the tiny hairs on a bee and collect the pollen then deposit it elsewhere. We hope that there is a way to save the real bees but in the meantime this is a cool solution.
Sometimes science can just be fun if not edible. Scientists at MIT have developed a process to make pasta that shape-shifts upon cooking. They claim it could save on shipping costs because you might be able to pack these flat noodles into a smaller container (think lasagna noodles stacked up, vs elbows). Fair enough. The real fun is that by adding layers of materials, the pasta can be made to curl up and form different shapes upon being dunked into hot water. They use layers of different materials like gelatin and cellulose and 3D print them. More important is their ability to predict the shape based upon the process or more to make a shape by design and then fabricate it.
Making computer parts smaller and smaller is the reason why your average laptop is a zillion times more powerful than computers from 50 years ago that used to fill up an entire room. The basic component of a computer chip is a transistor which is a switch that turns off and on. Today computer chips have close to two billion (2,000,000,000) transistors and counting. New materials including carbon nanotubes are being used to build different kinds of transistors. The first carbon nanotube transistors were made a few years ago (2013) at Stanford University and story was recently made into a video. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation
See the video here
The world’s smallest version of the Edmonton Oilers logo has been created by a group of scientists at the University of Alberta. The Oilers are the city’s NHL hockey team and they are currently in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The logo is only 2400 nanometers which is about twice the size of your average bacteria. About 900 million of these logos would fit on a hockey puck (think about that for a bit). The last time they made a nano-logo was 2006, unfortunately the Oilers lost to the Carolina Hurricanes, so this logo, about 40 times smaller is hopefully going to lead to a better outcome.
Methane is the building block of a lot of different fuels. There are a variety of methanes sources (think cows!) but on source of methane is to make it from carbon dioxide. There is lots of carbon dioxide but converting it to methane requires energy. Scientists at Duke University have developed a process that uses ultraviolet light and nanocubes made out of rhodium. Rhodium is an element that is pretty rare and the naocubes are about 37 nanometers on a side. When the UV light shines on the rhodium nanocubes the energy from the light helps to convert carbon dioxide into methane. The reaction is pretty specific and there aren’t a lot of other products besides methane. One byproduct they are trying to avoid is carbon monoxide. Taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere while making fuel is a neat way to help reduce global warming and also provide a renewable energy source.
This work was supported by the National Science Foundation along with Army Research Office and the Department of Energy.
Spinal injuries can be devastating with the loss of movement in arms and legs. The primary problem is damage to neurons, those cells that transmit signals to and from the brain. There have been many attempts to fix neurons. Scientists at MIT have developed a new synthetic nanomaterial that is like rubber but able to transmit electrical and optical signals. Some day this kind of material could fix connections between tissues and has the mechanical properties that would allow it to be flexible. There are a lot of challenges including making sure that the body accepts this material and doesn’t try to reject it
Nature provides a lot of inspiration for making things on the nanoscale. We have evolution to help get the design right and then if we are smart enough we can go into the lab figure out how it works and copy it. Things like gecko feet have been used to develop new types of adhesives (see here). Now researchers at Penn State University have looked at how the carnivorous pitcher plant produces a super-slippery surface that makes ants (and other insects) slide on the plant’s leaf and become……dinner. These super-slippery surfaces can be mimicked using special types of Teflon that these scientists create in the lab. What can we use this super-slippery stuff for? Things like medical devices or even surfaces that we don’t want to ice up, like the wings of a plane. For more information go here.
Scientists come in all shapes, sizes and colors. One of the super heros of nanotechnology died last week. Mildred Dresselhaus. Who? Dresselhaus was one of the pioneers in the discovery of carbon nanotubes and predicted their existence long before anyone even saw one. Carbon nanotubes are nanometer-sized tubes consisting entirely of carbon. Her contributions to science are many and she is among the most recognized scientists in the field. Dresselhaus worked on graphene and the field of thermoelectrics which has a number of different important applications. How important was her contributions to science and also the promotion of women in science? In 2014 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom! An award given that year to individuals as diverse as Meryl Streep (actress), Charles Sifford (golfer) and Stevie Wonder (song writer). Stevie Wonder and Mildred Dresselhaus, how cool is that?
Windows! they let us look out on the world from our room and see all sorts of stuff. But could windows do more? Researchers have used nanotechnology to create efficient solar collectors which can collect energy from the sun. They make tiny silicon nanoparticles that are only a few nanometers in size and consists of less than 2000 atoms of silicon. At that size they are not only efficient at collecting solar energy but also don’t impact the ability to see through the windows. Most houses have lots of windows so why not use them not just to look out on the world but generate a bit of energy at the same time.
Scientists at Vanderbilt University have discovered a new use for the machine that is used to make cotton candy. Cotton candy is basically sugar that is spun into thin fibers. The cotton candy machine was invented by William Morrison a dentist in collaboration with a candy maker John Wharton. Instead of using sugar, these scientists used a polymer to make a network of thin threads. The threads serve to create tiny channels in gelatin and the polymer is removed leaving just the tiny channels. The channels range in size from a few thousand nanometers to almost 100,000 nanometers. The structures they make are used to study how oxygen and nutrients are transported through tissues by tiny blood vessels. For a video describing the science go to the National Science Foundation
Tiny bubbles are fun things when you find them in soft drinks where they tickle your nose. Tiny bubble can also be used to clean fruits and vegetables removing bacteria that might cause food-borne illness. Scientists at Virginia Tech University have used cavitation bubbles to scrub the surfaces of tomatoes to remove E. coli and Salmonella. Some day machines to clean these kinds of foods might find their way into your kitchen and help combat food-borne illness.
To celebrate the holiday season, why not some art? The image is gold nanowires that are being ‘grown’ on silicon. Nanowires are important for a variety of microelectronics. To grow them scientists have to perfect the recipe by trying different combinations of ingredients, temperatures and other things. These nanowires are about the size of a red blood cell, or about 10,000 nanometers. The gold nanowires were grown by
OK, sometimes you just have to work with Nature, not against it.
Scientists in California have put specially treated carbon nanotubes, small “threads” of carbon atoms, into spinach plants ! Why would they want to do this?. Well, scientists have “highjacked” the plant and turned it into a self-powered sensor for EXPLOSIVES. As the plants take up ground water, they also take up any contaminants in the water. The specially treated nanotubes have been treated with a chemical that is sensitive to certain chemicals found in explosives! When the contaminated water and the special nanotubes interact, the plant GLOWS !!! Well, it emits a form of light that is invisible to your eye but can be “seen” by a special camera, like in a smart phone. And they don’t even have to touch the plant, they just have to look at it !!
These particular plants have been engineered to detect explosive residue, but the same technique could be used to make them sense other contaminants, or to sense nutrients or water.
Fishing is a tricky business because fish are smart. Well maybe not ‘smart’ but they can do things to protect themselves from predators who are trying eat them. Scientists at the University of Texas have discovered that the skin of certain fish have tiny nanoscale structures called platelets that reflect polarized light. Polarized light is light that travels in the same plane and that is way light travels through water. By reflecting the polarized light they can appear invisible to a predator and they are most effective when the fish are positioned at an angle similar to the angle at which they are attacked.
The research was supported by the National Science Foundation.
Sometimes the best solutions come out of unlikely sources. Deep within what most folks would consider muck, scientists have found a way to trick a special kind of bacteria to make tiny wires that are made up of just amino acids. Non-toxic and manufactured using green processes, these nano-bio-wires are only 1.5 nanometers in width. That is much smaller than the best commercial nanofabrication processes can produce. These wires are 2000 times more conducting than just the protein itself leading to a wide number of potential applications. And unlike a lot of other manufacturing processes the process and the products are not toxic. The challenge is to direct the synthesis of these nano-bio-wires to create functional devices.
Sometimes nature provides the best examples of how to make new nanometer scale materials especially where there is a particular function. Think about how geckos can climb up walls and you can imagine how studying their feet might lead to new adhesives (including things that are going to the market). Difficult scientific challenges are often best figured out using teams and one team at Brandeis University has assembled to study new materials that can move just like living things. One project is focused the shape of cells and how to make artificial materials that move and behave just like cells. These artificial membranes can be used as sensors and also deliver drugs.
Clean energy is a good thing. We need energy to power a lot of things around us (like cars and iPhones) but we also don’t want to harm the environment by putting things like carbon monoxide into the atmosphere. A number of energy producing devices use catalysts to help carry out chemical reactions. Fuel cells for example take chemical energy and convert it into electrical energy. Scientists at the University of New Mexico and Washington State University have collaborated to develop a new kind of platinum catalyst to convert carbon monooxide (that invisible gas that can kill you) into carbon dioxide. Platinum is an expensive metal but also a very good catalyst. These scientists created a nanometer-scale material that traps platinum better and makes it a more efficient catalyst. The key was using something called cerium oxide to trap the platinum and keep it from forming aggregates which wasn’t good for catalysis. They hope to take these research discoveries and translate them into practical processes for making cleaner energy.
Scientists often use things in nature to design nanometer-scale tools. Things in nature are the result of years (and years) of evolution providing scientists with a final design that has undergone a lot of testing and refinement. The butterfly proboscis is an example, it is a long tube that butterflies use to suck up liquids. Researchers at Clemson University have studied the butterfly proboscis and used that to engineer a nano-sipper. They think it could be used to suck up and dispense very tiny (nanoliters, or one-billionth of a liter—think of a 2 liter bottle of soda—there are about 50,000 nanoliters in a drop). The advantage of these butterfly inspired straws are that they don’t get clogged which is a real problem with nanometer-scale fluid channels
Nanotechnology can be used to create new materials with superior properties. Solar cells, cancer drugs and now the visit to the dentist office could be a bit better (well still no fun!). New dental materials are being created. “These resin-based composites (RBCs) containing nanoparticles exhibit a high surface free-energy that exerts differential behavior in terms of mechanical and physicochemical properties, such as an excellent color density, low polymerization shrinkage, adequate surface brightness, low surface roughness, resistance to fracture, and excellent adherence to dental tissues,” wrote the authors. Wow that is a mouthful. Translation? The stuff that they use to repair cavities and damaged teeth is going to be better, smoother and more like real teeth.
Each year the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (a friend of Nanooze) hosts a contest for the best nano images. This years winner was taken by Elizabeth Sawicki from the University of Illinois. The images are of nanometer-sized gold nanoparticles in the brain after being whiffed up the nose. (not people, rats). The work is being done to develop new treatments for things like strokes. Ms. Sawicki is in the Medical Scholars Program. Congrats!