We don’t often think about the toilet as a source of information, but scientists at Cambridge University are developing an ‘intelligent loo’ that is able to analyze your urine. The toilet is engineered to contain optical sensors that detect different chemicals in your urine. The data is then uploaded to your phone (but hopefully not your Facebook page) indicating potential problems or perhaps instructions to adjust the dosage of a medication. The field of personalized medicine continues to explode and an one-size fits all approach to medicine is being replaced by treatments tailored for each individual.
Nanotechnology offers new ways of diagnosing diseases. Most tests require taking a sample, like blood, or urine and then sending them
to a laboratory. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ha
ve developed a sensor that you can swallow. Inside of the sensor are bacteria which have been engineered to glow if they are exposed to a certain chemical. The glowing bacteria then send out a radio signal which is detected using a smart phone. The pill was engineered to detect blood in the gastrointestinal tract, a sign of ulcers. The pill is part biology and part engineering. What happens to the pill after you ingest it is obvious and no information was provided about if this is pill is recycled or well down the drain it goes.
Researchers at Georgia Tech have made the ‘World’s Smallest Ad’ created for Arby’s, the fast food restaurants. The ad was printed on the side of a sesame seed, like the one you might find….wait for it….on a roast beef sandwich bun. The size of the ad was about 800 square microns (less than the width of a hair in either dimension) which is pretty small but still almost a billion square nanometers. If you were at the Arby’s in NYC apparently you got to ‘see’ one of these seeds using a scanning electron microscope. What happened to this seed isn’t obvious, hopefully it didn’t wind up on a roast beef sandwich that was woofed down by a customer.
Some medicines are more effective when they are delivered at the site where they are needed and when they are needed. Think about taking an aspirin but it works only when you have a headache. Scientists from have developed a biodegradable material with nanometer-scale gold particles that help release medicines embedded in the material. When you shine an infrared light on the material, the gold particles heat up the biodegradable material and release the medicine. Near infrared-wavelength light is used because it can penetrate a lot deeper into the body than regular visible light. These biodegradable materials might be implanted into the body and then release important medicines on demand
Nanotechnology has contributed to the advances in our ability to see different things at the nanoscale. Microscopy has advanced from the very early days of microscopes being a single glass lens to very advanced instruments with nanometer resolution. We can see lots of stuff with high resolution and even in 3D. And sometimes the picture is just neat. Scientists at St. Judes Hospital used a confocal microscope to study the progression of a soft tissue cancer to understand the origins of these cancer cells. It was once believed these cancer cells came from muscle tissue but in fact are from cells that make up blood vessels. The technique and the image involve immunostaining, using antibodies against bind to different things. The antibodies are ‘painted’ with a dye that results in different colors. The cool image may help doctors understand
how an important disease like cancer develops and how it might be cured.
Scientists from MIT and the University of California have figured out a way to engineer plants to glow in the dark. This isn’t the first time but it is the first time that it has been on whole plants without initially do some tricky genetics. They use nanoparticles that introduce the same components that fireflies use to glow in the dark. These tiny particles are forced into plant cells by pressure and once there they make the plants glow. There are lots of applications but we kind of like the idea of being able to mow in the dark. OK, that is a joke.
Mostly everything has a nano-unit measurement including sounds. The human ear can hear things down to around 0 decibels. If you are about 100 feet from a jet as it takes off that is about 150 decibels. Your headphones can be cranked up to around 100 decibels. Scientists at the University of California in San Diego have made nano-fibers that are sensitive enough to hear things at -30 decibels. That is around 1000 times more sensitive than the human ear (decibels are measured on a log scale). They can use this device to ‘hear’ heart muscles beat. These scientists imagine that their device might be used to ‘hear’ a single bacteria (sneaking up behind you) or changes in cells that might signal their becoming cancerous. Their work was supported by the National Science Foundation
Before you call the typo police, we are talking mussels, not muscles. Researchers at Purdue University have developed an adhesive that is based upon the same stuff that mussels use to stay stuck to wooden poles, rocks and other places that mussels like to hang out. They claim the synthetic mussel-based glue is 10 times stronger than commercial glues. These researchers studied the components of the goo that helps mussels stick to things and then made their own glue based upon the molecules in this natural material. The secret sauce is a molecule called DOPA which is an amino acid (one of the building blocks of proteins) and that is what makes the mussel glue so strong. The mussel-based glue even works underwater (well of course).
For a video click here
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