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Nanorobots Are Not a Technology; They Are a Prediction

I confess, I don’t get it. Why are people so easily confused by today’s nanoparticles and discussions of futuristic nanorobots?

This confusion reared its ugly head recently in an article discussing nanotechnology in cancer treatments. There is probably no more somber a topic than cancer. If you have not been directly affected by it, chances are you know someone who has. It’s a serious subject.

So the combining of misapprehensions regarding nanorobots and cancer is a harrowing read as I recently discovered in article infuriatingly entitled: “Nanorobots: Novel Technology for Cancer Therapy.”

The basis for much of the mish-mosh found in this blog post seems to be an article that can be found in the IEEE Transactions on Nanotechnology, dating back to June 2003.  

What seems to have escaped the author’s attention is the first sentence of the abstract: "The author presents a new approach WITHIN ADVANCED GRAPHICS SIMULATIONS for the problem of nanoassembly automation and its application for medicine." (Emphasis is mine.) In other words, Cavalcanti was discussing computer-simulated models of nanorobots.

Then the article brings up the use of quantum dots for targeting cancer cells without the slightest hint of a transition after discussing the same capability in nanorobots. But there’s one big difference between the two approaches: one actually exists and the other is only imagined.

What’s perplexing about this blog post is that it presents itself as such a scholarly work—with footnotes and everything—and yet manages to miss the obvious distinction between science fiction and science fact. It’s peppered with enough “coulds” and “woulds” to lend it some plausible deniability. But the overall effect is to give one the impression that nanorobots are a cancer treatment.

Nanotechnology’s role in cancer treatment today is really encouraging in detectiontargeting, and drug delivery.

Isn’t it possible to discuss these breakthroughs in a pseudo-scholarly way and then take the same pseudo approach to discussing the Freitas wing of nanomedicine separately if you’re so enamored with the idea?

I suppose I wouldn’t continue to stamp my feet about this confusion except for the fact that letting it continue has already proven to have dire consequences

Illustration: Guillermo Lobo/iStockphoto

Artificial Retina Impresses, But Is It Nanotechnology?

The Wall Street Journal’s online magazine Market Watch recently ran a story on two new approaches to overcoming degenerative eye diseases with artificial retinas.

The story came across my desk by virtue of the fact that one of the companies goes by the name Nano Retina. The Israel-based company is a joint venture between Rainbow Medical and Zyvex Labs, the latter being well known for its work in nanotechnology and its founder Jim Von Ehr, who has been a strong proponent of molecular mechanosynthesis.

Both Nano Retina’s and its competitor Second Sight’s approaches to providing a solution to disease-caused blindness impressed me. And the Wall Street Journal article expressed intrigue that "the number of blind persons in the U.S. is projected to increase by 70 percent, to 1.6 million by 2020, with a similar rise projected for low vision," according to a 2004 paper prepared by a research group led by a Johns Hopkins University professor, Nathan Congdon. In other words, it's a growth sector, which always pleases investors.

But I wanted to know where the nanotechnology was in the “Nano” Retina. Finding out turned out not to be an easy task. There was the video from the company Web site below, which explained that the implantable device contained “nanoelectrodes.”

The written information on the company did not shine any further light on the subject. The video does seem to claim some pretty amazing capabilities for these nanoelectrodes. Apparently, they “interface with the eye’s bipolar neurons” and restart neural stimulation, allowing for messages to go to the brain.

I have to confess I would like to know more, but I’m sure this is all highly proprietary information for a company that doesn’t expect to start clinical trials until 2013.

Nanotech Webinar Appeals to Wide Audience

Last week, I joined in a webinar entitled “Small is Beautiful: Everyday Applications and Advances in Nanochemistry,” that was hosted by the American Chemical Society in its Joy of Science series.

I was drawn to the webinar by its scheduled speakers: Andrew Maynard, Director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan, and Paul Weiss, Director of California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA. But since I was pressed for time and somewhat weary of PowerPoint slides that discuss the Lycurgus Cup. I decided to cut out early and listen to the archived version found at the link at the top of this post.

Despite the webinar's being hosted by the ACS, it seemed to be very much directed at the layman rather than your typical physical chemist. But that too is somewhat misleading; Weiss very subtly raised important distinctions between terms, such as patterning, control, and—most important—function, that might be lost on someone first being introduced to the subject.

Nearly three-quarters of the hour-long webinar is devoted to Q&A, but in Weiss’ final slide, he had written: Most nanomaterials are not precisely defined. We should not treat them as chemicals.

Of course, if we can’t consider graphene to be graphite we are handing ourselves a lot of toxicology work sorting out how it and other nanomaterials interact with biological systems. As Weiss estimates (arguably) that there are currently 100 000 new nanomaterials, it would take us 10 000 years testing with current methods to determine their risk. A nonsensical task, needless to say.

Weiss hints at a more pragmatic and hierarchical approach, in which a grading system is applied to nanomaterials so those that pose the biggest threat and have the least redeeming value are targeted and those with expected low risk and high benefit are fast-tracked (so to speak).

This proposal sort of scans like the Royal Society’s nanotechnology report from eight years ago. 

But aside from the whole environmental, health, and safety discussion, Weiss had some interesting perspectives on the history of nanotechnology’s development.

When Maynard suggested that we are now beginning to see that the macro world that some scientists initially were trying to impose on the nanoscale world—could this be a referral to mechanosynthesis?—were off the mark, Weiss suggested that the field of nanotechnology is actually a throwback.

“At the beginning of the 20th century, they were thinking about atoms and on the single-molecule scale because that was what they were wrapping their hands around with quantum mechanics. We got away from that with the use of ensemble measurements, but as of 30 years ago, when the STM was invented, we’re back again,” explained Weiss.

As I said, I am not really sure who this was all intended for, but it’s all interesting enough that anyone can glean some worthy bits from it.

Nanopillars on Surface of Thin-Film Silicon Could Lead to Better Solar Cells

When you start to discuss the power conversion–efficiency of solar cells, you are bound to ruffle some feathers.

To many it’s an apples-and-oranges debate. You have multijunction solar cells with conversion efficiency rates at 42 percent while dye-sensitized solar cells are now reaching just 10 percent. It's hard to see how they compare—never mind compete.

But what are we really trying to get at with this standard? It would seem that we are trying to sort out the best alternative per kilowatt hour (kWh). Why we don’t set aside the whole energy conversion efficiency debate to focus on kWh figures remains a bit of a puzzle for me.

That said, researchers at the A*STAR Institute of Microelectronics in Singapore tackled the fact that the best thin-film photovoltaics only approach half the energy conversion efficiency of conventional bulk silicon solar cells.

The research, led by Navab Singh and published in the IEEE journal Electron Device Letters, brought about a thin film of silicon with “nanopillars” on the surface to heighten light absorption.

"By investigating a variety of appropriate vertical nanopillar designs, we can enhance the light-trapping and -collection efficiency of thin films to compensate for the efficiency loss caused by reduced material quality and quantity," says Singh.

The trick, of course, is to match—or at least better approach—the energy conversion–efficiency rates of single-crystalline silicon solar cells with thin-film silicon solar cells. Whether this is the particular answer to achieving that remains to be seen, but it seems to be a move in the right direction, unlike the pursuit of ever-higher conversion rates.

Adhesion Capability of Graphene Opens New Application Possibilities

Researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, have discovered that graphene possesses unexpected adhesion qualities that could open it to use in new, graphene-based mechanical devices such as gas separation membranes. 

Assistant Professor Scott Bunch of the CU-Boulder mechanical engineering department, along with graduate students Steven Koenig and Narasimha Boddeti and Professor Martin Dunn, published in the August 14 edition of Nature Nanotechnology their discovery that graphene’s flexibility and its strong influence to van der Waals force make it stick to even the smoothest surfaces.

"The real excitement for me is the possibility of creating new applications that exploit the remarkable flexibility and adhesive characteristics of graphene and devising unique experiments that can teach us more about the nanoscale properties of this amazing material," Bunch said.

The experiment ran a so-called “blister test”—essentially, adhesion energy tests—on one to five layers of graphene after it had been placed on a glass substrate. The results showed that the adhesion energies between graphene and the glass substrate were several orders of magnitude higher than those found in typical micromechanical structures (0.45 ± 0.02 J m−2 for monolayer graphene and 0.31 ± 0.03 J m−2 for samples containing two to five graphene sheets).

I understand that these adhesion properties of graphene bode well for membranes for natural gas processing or water purification, and it seems a good line of research to find uses of graphene that would seemingly avoid its inherent weakness of lacking a band gap.

It will be interesting to see what other possible applications people recognize in this new adhesion quality outside of mechanical membrane technologies.

Search Terms Indicate the Expansion of Nanotechnology

Nanowerk, in its most recent Spotlight piece, has highlighted the work of two UC Davis researchers in analyzing the spread of nanotechnology research by using search terms within a scientific database that accesses over 10,000 scientific journals.

Minghua Zhang, a professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at UC Davis, and Michael L. Grieneisen, a researcher in Zhang's AGIS Lab, have published their findings in the journal Small, in an article entitled "Nanoscience and Nanotechnology: Evolving Definitions and Growing Footprint on the Scientific Landscape."

The Nanowerk article points out that Zhang’s and Grieneisen’s work is based upon a Georgia Tech project called “Refining search terms for nanotechnology” that was published in 2008.

The UC Davis researchers added some carbon nanostructure search terms to the list—graphene, fullerene, buckyball—and excluded a few more terms from the search that may have had a “nano” prefix but weren’t really related to nanotechnology, such as “nanosatellite.” They ran the updated search terms through Web of Science Database (WoS) for the years from 1991 to 2010 and voilà.

The results showed the top five countries in terms of records were:

  • China (20 186)
  • USA (18 472)
  • Japan (6556)
  • Germany (6546)
  • South Korea (5278)

I am really only slightly surprised by these figures. Mainly, I was initially surprised that China was at the top of the list. Then I took a look back at where UC Davis researchers had done their search and where the Georgia Tech folk had decided to focus their queries.

The WoS queries I imagine spread a much wider net than Georgia Tech’s search through “key journals.”

I don’t want to malign anyone here, but I think it is altogether possible that papers published in journals outside of the top publications might rack up a lot query hits but mean little in terms of actual scientific impact.

Can Nanotechnology Improve Lithium-ion Batteries to Make a Difference for Electric Vehicles?

I have carefully followed the nanotechnology-related developments for improving Li-ion batteries for use in mobile phones and other gadgets. However, I have been less enthusiastic about the prospects of nanotechnology in improving Li-ion batteries for use in electric vehicles (EVs).

My skepticism was initially tickled by John Petersen over at Alt Energy Stocks, whom I have referred to before in this blog, and who has new ammunition in his running doubt on the future of Li-ion batteries in EVs

It seems Mr. Petersen has never been convinced that EVs powered by Li-ion batteries, nano-enabled or otherwise, were really the wave of the future. He got further confirmation of his doubts when he came across a free 2010 report from the National Research Council entitled “Hidden Costs of Energy, Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use.” 

According to Petersen, the report takes a life-cycle approach to looking at the total cost of 13 different methods of powering vehicles, ranging from the internal combustion engine to Li-ion battery powered cars.

It turns out when you look at the full life cycle they’re all about the same in terms of “health, climate and other unpriced damages that arise from the use of various energy sources for electricity, transportation, and heat.” And this is not just for now but for 20 years into the future, when the technologies for things like Li-ion batteries are supposed to improve dramatically.

Petersen’s article is targeted for investors and as such discusses some of the ideas that have been investment darlings at one time or another in the Li-ion battery technology sweepstakes, such as Ener1, A123 Systems, Altair Nanotechnologies, and Valence Technologies (VLNC). He goes further to warn of dark days for the EV manufacturer Tesla:

“Lithium-ion battery developers have already taken it on the chin, and there's no question in my mind that Tesla will be the next domino to fall. Its demise is every bit as predictable and certain as Ener1's was.” 

Just so it’s clear, I am all in favor of EVs and for having them replace vehicles powered by internal combustion engines, but it just is not clear that Li-ion batteries with incremental improvements brought on by nanotechnology will be the power source for them.

Deeper Patterns and Easier Process Comes with New Etching Technique

Improved etching techniques have been making their way into the science journals of late.

Earlier this month, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh published their work in using DNA origami to both promote and inhibit the etching of SiO2 at the single-molecule level.

Now researchers at Argonne Center for Nanoscale Materials and Energy Systems Division have published two studies on a technique they have developed called sequential infiltration synthesis (SIS), which builds on long-standing lithography techniques but could be a real breakthrough in the field, according to the researchers.

The research, which was led by Seth Darling and published in two journals—Journal of Materials Chemistry and the Journal of Physical Chemistry C—involved developing a way by which to strengthen the delicate resist film to the extent that it no longer needs the intermediate mask.

What this translates into is a capability not only to circumvent all the complexities brought on by the use of an intermediate mask, but also to etch a pattern with greater depth and fidelity.

The SIS technique involves the controlled growth of inorganic materials with polymer films that can be built into complex, 3-D structures.

“It's possible we might be able to create very narrow features well over a micron deep using only a very thin, SIS-enhanced etch mask, which from our perspective would be a breakthrough capability," says Darling.

The researchers are looking at expanding the capabilities of the technique by combining SIS with block polymers to make features even smaller than those possible with e-beam lithography.

"This opens a wide range of possibilities," said Argonne chemist Jeff Elam, who helped create the process. "You can imagine applications for solar cells, electronics, filters, catalysts—all sorts of different devices that require nanostructures, but also the functionality of inorganic materials."

Quantum Dot-Based Infrared Materials Gets DARPA Contract

Massachusetts-based QD Vision announced this week that it had been awarded a $900,000 DARPA contract to build two prototype devices based on its quantum dot-based infrared material.

According to published reports, QD Vision “will deliver to DARPA a device with quantum dots as an emissive layer in an electroluminescent electronic device application, and a second, photoluminescent device that is based on a film that is activated by external light sources.”

"This program will leverage QD Vision's experience in developing stable, efficient IR materials for tactical applications," said Jason Carlson, President and CEO of QD Vision. "This is our second DARPA Program as a prime contractor, and we are excited to demonstrate these novel materials in two distinct modes of operation."

This most recent contract follows a US $22 million funding round received just this past May. So, for the company to get a nearly $1 million DARPA contract in just three months must have caused a sigh of relief in the investors.

To get a great backgrounder on the development of quantum dots for application in infrared detectors I refer you to this article written last year by Edward Sargent here on the pages of Spectrum.

In the article, Sargent points out just how quickly infrared detectors based on quantum dots are developing into commercial devices:

"Much closer to commercial development are quantum dots that are exquisitely sensitive to faint infrared light. With only a few years of research behind them, these devices now perform as well as the best traditional infrared detectors."

It appears that commercial development might have been closer than Sargent had even imagined. Granted, it's only a contract for defense department prototypes, but it's a sale nonetheless.

Nanotechnology's Role in the Lithium-ion Battery Anode and Cathode

A recent story in Spectrum covers the commercially promising work being done in using silicon to replace graphite in the anodes of Li-ion batteries.

These developments do hold promise for introduction of these new batteries into our personal electronic devices relatively soon. I have been so intrigued by this line of research I have been highlighting it for nearly four years

One of the key points of the recent Spectrum article referenced above is a discussion of a timeline for these nano-enabled batteries that ranges from two years out to early next year.

Timelines for this sort of thing are a tricky business. I wrote earlier this year on how Nanosys had developed a “silicon-based, architected material that fills in the voids of the carbon anode material matrix” that “remains intact and fully functional after 100% DoD cycle testing.” It also “demonstrated a >2× capacity improvement using 10% additive in a Li+ battery anode.”

When this material was announced, Nanosys was expecting volume sales of the material this year—in 2011. I went to the Nanosys Web site to see how this timeline was progressing, and I saw this: “Nanosys is working in collaboration with the world’s leading lithium-ion battery manufacturers to deliver unprecedented energy performance in new products coming to market over the next 18 months.”

I would imagine that it could be on the far side of two years from now before we see Li-ion batteries that have silicon on their anodes in our gadgets. But we’ll see.

The Spectrum article also suggested that now that the anode side of the battery seems to be covered, work is now turning to improving the cathode. Indeed it has. I bring your attention to the work of researchers at the University of Urbana-Champaign in building 3-D nanostructured cathodes. 

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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.

 
Editor
Dexter Johnson
Madrid, Spain
 
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Rachel Courtland
Associate Editor, IEEE Spectrum
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