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Nanotechnology Plays Role in First Synthetic Organ Transplant

The world’s first synthetic organ transplant is taking on the role of scientific achievement by which all others are measured. Sort of like, ‘if we can land on the moon, why can’t we make a [fill in the blank] that works.’

It is a remarkable achievement and is in part made possible by a nanocomposite developed at University College London (UCL) that serves as a scaffold that allows the stem cells to build upon it.

The lead surgeon in the procedure heaped praise upon the synthetic organ’s nanotechnology underpinnings.

"Thanks to nanotechnology, this new branch of regenerative medicine, we are now able to produce a custom-made windpipe within two days or one week,” says Professor Paolo Macchiarini in a separate BBC article covering the procedure. 

We don’t know too much about the specifics of the nanomaterial used in the scaffolding, except that it’s being called a “novel nanocomposite polymer” and was developed by Professor Alexander Seifalian at UCL Division of Surgery & Interventional Science.

While the nanocomposite scaffold is a critical element to the artificial organ, perhaps no less important was the bioreactor used to grow the stem cells onto it, which was developed at Harvard Bioscience.

If you needed any evidence of how nanotechnology is not only interdisciplinary, but also international, you could just cite this case: UK-developed nanocomposite for the scaffolding material, US-based bioreactor in which the stem cells were grown onto the scaffolding and a Swedish-based medical institute to perform the transplant.

So I ask, which country or region is going to get rich from the breakthrough?

Political Posturing in Nanotech Settles along Party Lines

I hope I have made my position on the so-called nanotech race clear over the years.  While I have been skeptical that a regional focus to nanotechnology’s development will somehow pay off in the end for those regions that invest in it, I had not yet seen the debate around nanotech’s development start splitting across the lines of the US government’s party ideologies. That is until now.

I came across this article in last week’s CBS MarketWatch website in which the debate is not just about how the US is in danger of losing its leadership in nanotech (I am not so certain this is likely to occur, even if you go by the numbers), but about whether actual funding or tax breaks are the factor that lead to that leadership in the first place.

According to the MarketWatch article, Sen. Kay Hutchinson, the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, said the U.S. led in nanotech over the last decade thanks to research-and-development tax cuts.

Can R&D tax cuts really be the factor that put the US in its strong position in nanotechnology’s development? I am a bit bewildered. Until this article I had never heard anyone mention tax cuts in the same breath as nanotech development.

I suppose the more than $14.5 billion the Federal government has spent in actual funding over the last decade was just a minor factor in that leadership. Instead the key factor seems to be, according to Sen. Hutchinson, that those tax cuts be made permanent.

I am not a Beltway expert by any means, but what is going on here? My understanding was that there was a vote to be taken by the US Senate to reauthorize the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) that has managed to get its funding through annual appropriation bills since 2008.

Instead what we seem to be getting is some non-issue standing in the way of getting the reauthorization voted on. Was someone really threatening to take away R&D tax cuts so that they needed to be protected by some permanent law?

I have been observing the US’s nanotechnology initiative since it started and have witnessed a slew of other countries launch theirs since and I think all in all the US should feel satisfied not only with the results to date but they way the program has been managed as well.

It would be a pity if all the hard work...and hard cash...that have gone into creating a foundation for nanotechnology’s development in the US, and even for it becoming a leader in the field, would be squandered for some political ideology.

UK Nanotech in Turmoil

They say if you want to get the real story on just about anything, follow the money—or possibly, as in the case of the United Kingdom’s nanotechnology strategy, the lack thereof.

It started innocently enough, trying to figure out how much money governments around the world were spending on R&D for nanotech.

As it turns out, the UK, although one of the first countries to have a targeted nanotech program, sort of moved away from chasing other countries’ rising funding levels, leaving one noted UK nanotechnology researcher and occasional blogger wondering: Why has the UK given up on nanotechnology?

Richard Jones’ insights into the UK’s particular predicament are unique, and an important read for anyone interested in seeing how the emerging technology strategies of nations can slowly drift off course until they end up somewhere completely different from their intended destination.

The story is complicated, with different bureaucratic boards leading the initiative and then being dissolved, but at the core of it the problem is one of simple economics. Nanotechnology is an enabling technology, and while the UK has a thriving pharmaceutical industry, its chemical industry is moribund, and it never really had much of an electronics industry. This leaves nanotechnology without much to enable.

From a certain perspective, you would have to agree with those officials who oversaw the slow bleeding of funds from nanotechnology research in the country. What is the point, after all?

Well, one could reasonably argue, as some have in the comments section of Jones’ piece, that nanotech may have been an opportunity to jump-start the manufacturing industry in the UK. Yes, maybe, but when the money guys are making money hand over fist from derivatives and other convoluted financial instruments, it’s hard to convince them of the importance of creating a manufacturing base.

It is all a cautionary tale indeed. But of particular interest to me was that no sooner had Richard Jones hearkened back to the foundational nanotechnology strategy document for the UK published in 2002, and known as the Taylor report, than I read that a new report had been published that “outlines recommendations for future success of UK nanotechnology.” Ironic? You bet.

You know, they might have spared themselves the latest effort if they had simply read and followed the recommendations of the Taylor report written nealy10 years ago. Of course, in the absence of a manufacturing base it would appear the “nanotechnology industry” in the UK consists of writing up strategy reports and then ensuring that no one bothers to read them so they can be written over and over again

Commercial Interests for Nanoparticles in Li-Ion Batteries for Electrical Vehicles Heats Up

In the commercial world of batteries for electrical vehicles (EVs), lithium-iron-phosphate batteries are the popular approach among lithium-battery technologies because of their safety and durability.

This has already led to some disputes, developing in the last couple of years, over charge/discharge rates and intellectual property rights within the field.

As if the commercial situation were not tense enough, it now appears there is a new player in the lithium-iron-phosphate battery universe. The new start up is called Wuhe, and it is located outside of Beijing.

Wuhe was founded by Yu-Guo Guo, a professor at the Institute of Chemistry at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), and is based on work he has published in journals such as Energy and Environmental Science

According to published reports, Wuhe’s technology reduces the production costs of working with nanoscale lithium-iron-phosphate materials to the point where it could cut battery-cell manufacturing costs by 10 percent.

The reduction in production costs seems to come from the material's being easier to work with than the fine nanoscale powders of lithium-iron phosphate produced by companies such as A123 Systems. Instead Wuhe seems to use lithium-iron-phosphate nanoparticles embedded in larger particles of porous carbon, based on some of the other research published by Guo.

Guo claims that the production method costs only 10 to 20 percent more than bulk lithium-iron phosphate but produces twice as much power as the bulk material while making available twice as much energy in the lithium-iron phosphate, which results in an approximately doubled energy storage capacity. 

It does seem odd that in the reporting of this, there is no mention of how Wuhe’s nanoparticles are easier to work with than the milled nanopowder, resulting in a 10 percent reduction in production costs. But I guess that will be something of which they will have to convince their buyers. 

Carbon Nanotubes Get Functionalized Without Losing Key Characteristics

Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) possess characteristics that have tantalized researchers for decades with their extraordinary electrical conductivity.

But in many applications it hardly seemed to matter because CNTs have remained insoluble, making them impossible to disperse in a liquid for coating applications. Instead of dispersing in the liquid the CNTs would just lump together.

Researchers have known for some time that functionalizing CNTs in such a way that they don’t lump together is the way forward, but the problem has been once you functionalize CNTs for that purpose they lose their conductive and luminescent capabilities that made them so attractive in the first place.

But research out of the University of Maryland may have made a breakthrough in this area.

The researchers have found a way through wet chemistry, in a process known as Billups-Birch reductive alkylcarboxylation, to introduce a defect into CNTs that keeps them from lumping together but doesn’t prevent them from retaining their conductivity along certain parts of the CNT.

The research, which was just published in the journal Nature Communications and led by Assistant Professor Yu Huang Wang of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, is targeted for battery applications and luminescent biosensors. For those interested a seven-page PDF file on the Nature research can be downloaded here

"This is important for the future use of these materials in batteries and solar cells where efficient charge collection and transport are sought," Wang explains. "These CNTs also could be used as highly sensitive biochemical sensors because of their sharp optical absorption and long-lived fluorescence in the near infrared regions where tissues are nearly optically transparent."

Interestingly the research claims to be the first wet chemistry process for producing “clustered functional groups at a controlled, constant propagation rate” with carbon nanotubes.

How Does Nanotech Funding Stack Up to Nanotech Impact?

Since I had a part in assembling some of the data for a recent Cientifica white paper, entitled Global Nanotechnology Funding, which was released this week, I thought I might offer some perspectives on the data collected.

While there are some interesting tidbits for this year, such as because of a small dip in US nanotech funding in 2011, in terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) China will slightly outspend the US this year (China will spend $2.25 billion and the US $2.18 billion), the long-term trends are perhaps more critical.

Yes, Asia’s public spending on nanotechnology research is growing faster than that of the West, and that disparity between the two regions' rate of growth would be truly alarming if Russia had not jumped in a few years back with huge influx of cash.

But despite this trend in Asia, there is the enigma of India. On the one hand, we have witnessed its economic miracle of leveraging its excellent science and engineering schools and low wages to create a global IT powerhouse. But in nanotech, the miracle has not quite materialized.

This prompted India’s leading nanotechnology expert, Prof. CNR Rao, to comment just last week that India may be missing out on the “nano bus”. 

“This is the only field in which we can do something. And if we don’t catch up with others in the next 10 years, we may miss the ‘nano’ bus too,” Rao told media recently.

There seems to be a number of factors that are causing India to lag behind. Chief among them would likely be a lack of funding, or perhaps more accurately put, an inability to spend its allotted funding.

I suppose we could leave it at that, but as the Cientifica white paper points out, where India really suffers is in the area of capitalizing on nanotech R&D. This metric is brought to us by Cientifica’s tweaking of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Competitiveness Report, which allows us to see how well various countries can translate their public funding into real-world effects.

So the problems that plague India in developing nanotechnology are those that handicap the rest of the world. There may be funding for research, but there is little to bridge the long development period between the lab and the fab. Commercializing a nanotech product is not the same as hiring some guys to write some code for some new software. This is creating a manufacturing base to produce sometimes entirely new classes of devices. Not the same thing, not even close.

While the nations of Asia can rightfully be patting themselves on the back for their strong public commitment to nanotech (with the possible exception of India), the US doesn’t need to start pulling its hair out. According to this report, when taking into account the WEF’s Global Competitiveness Report, the US still holds a strong position in the so-called nanotech race

Public Outreach in Nanotechnology through Paid-for Articles

It’s hard to know nowadays what is legitimate journalistic opinion and what is a paid-for editorial.

TNTLog noticed that in the popular UK newspaper The Guardian a recent opinion piece on the state of nanotechnology was in fact an editorial that was paid for by none other than Nanochannels, the odd EU-funded public outreach project.

As TNTLog suggests it is a bit "bizarre" to start a public outreach project by bamboozling the public into thinking that editorial opinion is genuine and not manufactured for a price.

It’s important to note that the article is really of the highest order for these types of stories. It shows us how nanotechnology is really part of our everyday lives as it traces our steps through a typical holiday in the sun. So, Nanochannels certainly got their money’s worth: A widely read daily newspaper in the UK contains a top-notch article on nanotechnology. Who could ask for more?

I am wondering if it might not be the public that presumably Nanochannels is supposed to be informing on nanotechnology might think they are getting a bit of the short end of the stick.

But this seems to be the avenue that Nanochannels has taken to inform the public. They have partnered with The Guardian to run what appears is going to be a series of articles on nanotechnology in lieu of producing their own website at least for the time being. It makes sense since a lot more people are likely to read The Guardian than find their way to a newly launched nanotechnology website.

But by leading people to believe that a paid-for article is part of the newspaper’s regular editorial content, it could be interpreted that Nanochannels (and the Guardian) have played fast and loose with public trust, which would seem to me a pretty important element in informing them about the benefits and risks of a technology that few understand or even care about.

New Method for Building Complex Structures from Quantum Dots Proposed

Edward Sargent, Professor in The Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto, has been a busy man of late.

At the end of last month, I wrote on his work in using colloidal quantum dots for multi-junction solar cells.

This month Sargent along with Shana Kelley, a Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Toronto, are reporting in the journalNature Nanotechnology that they have developed a strategy by which to build complex structures out of varying types of quantum dots. In this case, the structure that they built serves as a kind of antenna for light.

As testament to how multi-disciplinary investigations into nanotechnologies can be, expertise in both semiconductor engineering and DNA had to be combined to realize their results. 

"The credit for this remarkable result actually goes to DNA: its high degree of specificity – its willingness to bind only to a complementary sequence – enabled us to build rationally-engineered, designer structures out of nanomaterials," says Sargent in a Physorg.com article

"The amazing thing is that our antennas built themselves – we coated different classes of nanoparticles with selected sequences of DNA, combined the different families in one beaker, and nature took its course,” adds Sargent. “The result is a beautiful new set of self-assembled materials with exciting properties."

The analogy to an antenna comes from the fact that like a traditional antenna these nano-antennae capture dispersed energy and then concentrate that captured energy to a specific location. According to Sargent, this particular kind of antenna for light is seen in the leaves of trees.

While creating light absorbing antennae from quantum dots is an interesting way to manipulate the material, it would seem that developing a method for building various structures with disparate types of quantum dots would be the more impressive bit of this research.

"What this work shows is that our capacity to manipulate materials at the nanoscale is limited only by human imagination,” says Kelley in the article. “If semiconductor quantum dots are artificial atoms, then we have rationally synthesized artificial molecules from these versatile building blocks."

Opposite Sides of the Atlantic Deliver Alternative Views of Nanotech's Development

This week we get two very different perspectives on the state of nanotechnology and its development.

On the one hand, we have the somewhat jaundiced view from the United Kingdom–based New Scientist, which confesses to a fair amount of skepticism about the mere idea of nanotechnology but wonders why the UK has seemingly dropped off the nanotech map.

On the other hand, we have the United States–based Industry Week, which promises that whatever regulatory problems we see now are merely growing pains in the manifest destiny of nanotech’s ultimate success.

The somewhat more pessimistic Old World view comes from Roger Highfield, the New Scientist editor who penned the publication’s blog piece. He references the travails of UK-based quantum manufacturer Nanoco as evidence of the lack of emphasis on nanotech’s development in the UK.

Highfield also bases much of his perspective on a nearly abandoned piece of research sponsored by the RCUK Nanoscience Programme entitled “Setting the Foundations for New Industries and Opportunities,” which can be found here. Of course, abandoning previous research so you can do it all over again is a popular tradition that seems to plague European Union projects and especially those in the UK

The report, which was put together by an international panel of academics, seems to have ignored the rule for most of these government reports: They ultimately must serve as a pat on the back while urging people to do even more great work.

It does, however, nail one of the key problems with nanotech’s development in the UK (and, one could argue, in the EU as well):

“...the system is top-heavy, with a labyrinth of advisory, consultative, and coordinating committees. These impede decision taking, rather than facilitating it, and create confusion both within the research community and at higher policy levels.”

I am sure that this dependence on consultations and repetitive reports all started innocently enough, but now it seems to have become a systemic problem that will really need to be addressed for there to be forward progress—not only in the UK, but in just about any country that has announced a nanotechnology initiative.

Graphene Enables Invisibility Cloak

Fans of the original "Star Trek" television show surely recall those dastardly Klingons employing a cloaking device that rendered their vessels invisible. Of course, that is science fiction, but in research coming out of the University of Texas at Austin, that capability sounds amusingly similar to a proposed use of graphene in providing an “active, dynamically tunable invisibility cloak.”

The research, which was originally published in the ACS journal Nano, builds on two fields of previous work. The first field is termed “plasmonic cloaking,” which uses metamaterial coatings, and the second is known as “mantle cloaking,” which achieves more or less the same effects as plasmonic cloaking but by using impedance.

"The graphene cloak idea stems from the mantle cloaking concept, which we have proposed at microwaves using frequency-selective surfaces, i.e., properly patterned conducting surfaces that can tailor their effective surface impedance at will," says Andrea Alù, at the University of Texas at Austin, in the Nanowerk article cited above.

Alù adds, "Due to the recent progress in understanding graphene's AC conductivity, we have realized that its unique features of ultrahigh mobility and largely tunable Fermi level may naturally provide the required reactive properties in a single atomic layer. The effective surface impedance of graphene can be tuned in real time, another great advantage of this graphene cloak, which makes dynamically tunable and switchable cloaking operation possible."

While invisible aircraft may leap to mind, the applications for this technology could be in the areas of noninvasive sensors and low-scattering electronic components.

"There is great interest in realizing low-scattering or impedance-matched electronic components, and we believe that the use of this graphene layer may realize this effect in an ultrathin geometry—much thinner than antireflection coatings or other available technology," says Alù.

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Nanoclast

IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

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Dexter Johnson
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