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Nano-enabled Wound Dressing Discerns between Good and Bad Bacteria

When it comes to our health there are bacteria that are beneficial, and there are also bacteria that are quite detrimental. Some UK researchers wanted to address this problem of why some bacteria are pathogenic and some are not. The process of answering that question led them to demonstrating how a nanocapsule system can be a “nano-Trojan horse” for combating only harmful bacteria  in infections while leaving 'friendly' bacteria untouched.

The work, which was conducted at the Department of Chemistry at the University of Bath and originally published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, is ultimately a proposal for a nanocapsule system that administers antimicrobial treatments only in the presence of pathogenic bacteria.


As one of the researchers, Toby Jenkins,  explains in the Nanowerk Spotlight piece linked to above it was discerning the property that makes some bacteria pathogenic that made it possible to figure out a way of destroying them. “Basically, we have found a way so that we can use the property that makes some (not all) bacteria pathogenic by presenting them with capsules which bacterial secretion toxins attack (as if they are healthy tissue). Inside the capsules is an antimicrobial or a dye," says Jenkins.

This possibility of having a “smart” wound dressing that would kill harmful bacteria while ignoring the billions of harmless bacteria would be of critical importance to the treatment of burn victims.

"Our advanced wound dressing dressing will work by releasing antibiotics from nanocapsules triggered by the presence of disease-causing pathogenic bacteria, which will target treatment before the infection takes hold," Jenkins explains. "The dressing will also change color when the antibiotic is released, alerting healthcare professionals that there is infection in the wound. This is an important step in treating burns patients, particularly children, where infections can lead to toxic shock syndrome, a potentially fatal condition."

White House Announces Opening of Portal for Public Input on Nanotechnology Strategy

Everyone has a blog, including the White House, where it was announced this week that the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)  has made available the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) Strategy Portal where it will be possible to submit your thoughts and ideas on how to advance nanotechnology’s development. The portal is described as on online event and will only be open from July 13th to August 15th, so be sure to make your recommendations soon.

I was initially skeptical of this proposal to get the input of the public when it was first presented because they made it seem they wanted ideas on new application areas. However, when it became clear that OSTP’s aim was to re-think innovation frameworks I was easily turned around since this has always been the problem area.

But even when the focus became clear it seemed that the highly sophisticated recommendations were not really discussed in a rigorous way. That could have just been how it seemed during the meeting and perhaps afterwards the suggestions were given more serious consideration.

This latest blog entry from the White House, however, has some interesting little ticks. Most notable to me is that there are these two generations of nanotechnology applications. One is enabled by mere nanomaterials and the other newer generation by something else, which is never quite identified.

“President Obama’s Strategy for American Innovation highlights the promise of nanotechnology to transform multiple industries: capturing and storing clean energy, developing next-generation computer chips, early detection of diseases, smart anti-cancer therapeutics that deliver drugs only to tumor cells, and enabling all-new approaches to a wide range of manufacturing activities, among many other examples. While the commercial impact of nanotechnology to date has been limited primarily to nanomaterials applied to a range of consumer goods from healthcare to textiles, automotive composites and industrial coatings, nanotechnology innovation is poised to accelerate dramatically. Among the most compelling recent examples are solar cells leveraging nanotechnology to increase efficiency and reduce costs and bullet-proof, flexible carbon nanotube-based armor.”

I would hereby like to inform the White House that all the examples of newer, better application areas they have identified for nanotechnology will be made possible through nanomaterials (or as they say, “limited to nanomaterials”).

I can’t get past the idea that they just might be thinking or imagining molecular manufacturing as the means by which the next generation of applications for nanotechnology will be realized. Granted, there’s nothing specific that I can point to for this conclusion, except that they see current applications being “limited” by just using nanomaterials. What do they expect to enable the next generation, fairy dust?

Nano-enabled Coating Makes Aircraft Invisible

No, we're not talking about a Wonder Woman-type of invisible plane, but rather one that becomes very difficult to detect with radar.

The Israel-based Ynetnews is reporting that an Israeli company called Nanoflight has successfully run a test on dummy missiles that were painted with the nano-enabled coating and have shown that radar could not pick them up as missiles.

The YnetNews article rather brutally points out that painting an aircraft with this nanocoating is far cheaper than buying a $5 billion US-made stealth aircraft. Of course, it should also be noted that one sale of a $5 billion aircraft employs a large number of aeronautical engineers, and the high price tag also makes it far more difficult for others to purchase the technology and possess the ability to sneak up on an enemy as well.

The nanocoating achieves its radar trickery by absorbing the radio waves emitted by the radar and scattering them as heat energy enough so that when the radar gets the bounced back signal it is not regular enough to indicate an object.

It seems that nano-enabled paint is the way towards commercial success in nanotechnology as I discovered at London conference a couple of years ago in which a number of projects producing exotic nanomaterials were trotted out but only one company that actually made a nano-enabled product: a paint.

Nanoflight appears pretty far along in its development process as well. A spokesman for Nanoflight, Eli Shaldag, is quoted in the article indicating that the company is in the second stage of its development process after which they will be able to produce the coating in larger quantities.

The company also sees an opportunity to use the material on the soldiers to make them invisible to infrared and night-vision goggles.

One-step Process for Creating Nanocircuits from Graphene Reported

We have seen this year IBM labs reporting on their method for giving graphene a band gap and then exceeding their own transistor speed record. This has been the way with graphene the last few years, one ground-breaking report after another.

So we’ve almost come to expect some news on the graphene front and last month we weren’t disappointed when a team of researchers reported in Science that they had developed a one-step process that uses a heated atomic force microscope (AFM) tip to tune the topographical and electrical properties of reduced graphene oxide for graphene-based electronics.

The researchers from Georgia Tech, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign were partly inspired by the understanding that on the macroscale when graphene oxide is put into furnaces its properties can be changed from being an insulating material to a ore conductive graphene-like material. With this knowledge the researchers discovered that reduced graphene oxide started to become more conductive at 130 degrees Celsius.

In an article available on the Navy Research Laboratory’s website, Georgia Institute of Technology physicist Elisa Riedo notes, "We've shown that by locally heating insulating graphene oxide, both the flakes and epitaxial varieties, with an atomic force microscope tip, we can write nanowires with dimensions down to 12 nanometers. And we can tune their electronic properties to be up to four orders of magnitude more conductive. We've seen no sign of tip wear or sample tearing,"

According to William P. King, associate professor in the Mechanical Science and Engineering department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the research stands out for three reasons: 1) It can be accomplished in one step 2) They believe all graphene will behave this way (changing from an insulator to a conductor when heat is applied) 3) The writing process with the heated AFM tip can be accomplished at a high rate.

It seems graphene is continuing its astonishing run of breakthroughs. Maybe if it stays in the fields of electronics and photonics and away from tennis racquets and bicycles it can avoid the fate of carbon nanotubes and fall victim to the rants of NGOs, who like to cite inconclusive research as evidence for banning their use.

Nanoparticles Enable Remote Control of Living Organism's Behavior

Let me settle you down a little after the headline above. We’re only talking about the ability to have remote control over the behavior of worms here, and merely getting them to recoil at that.

But it is true that researchers at the University of Buffalo have managed to attach nanoparticles to the cell membranes of worms and then heat those nanoparticles up by exposing them to a magnetic field. The heat then opens up calcium ion channels in the cells, which in turn activates neurons, causing the worms to recoil (see video below).

Now before some NGOs get the wrong end of the stick on this one and start dreaming up dark scenarios of nanotechnology controlling the minds of both man and beast, the purpose of this research is not only to better understand the signaling networks controlling animal behavior but also for developing better cancer treatments and diabetes therapies. The idea being that if the nanoparticles can be made to target certain cells (like cancer cells) it may be possible to heat them up with the magnetic field and kill them.

As attractive as this specific targeting of cancer cells sounds, I am always a bit leery of this kind of treatment after reading George Whitesides’ succinct point on this subject “Cancer cells are abnormal cells, but they’re still us." 


Nanostructured Materials Could End the Need for the Dreaded Root Canal

Yesterday I urged that we start using new examples of nanotechnology applications when we are discussing the impact of nanotechnology.

While I am sure we would like to hear how nanotechnology has finally made possible a quantum computer, or that there are actually today little nanorobots circulating through our bloodstream curing us of diseases.

Unfortunately I cannot report to you today on anything like these examples. But if you’re like me and you have had a root canal in your life, and you now live in fear that you may have to undergo that medically sanctioned torture session again, I have good news.

It seems a team of European researchers have developed a nano-scale film that can be coated with a hormone that is used to fight inflammation and found when they put the film onto cells that make up dental pulp it not only reduced inflammation but also encouraged new cell growth.

Now as my dentist explained my root canal to me, the decay of the tooth had gone so deep that it had gone into the pulp of the tooth. If he had simply put a filling in the tooth, the pulp would be forever exposed causing nearly constant pain from the nerves. The solution has been to kill every last nerve in the tooth—the fun part of the root canal.

With this nano-structured mechanism, which was originally reported in the American Chemical Society’s ACS Nano Journal you won’t need to kill the tooth, just revitalize it. 

But in the publication cited above where I first read of this development they wonder whether this is just another expensive procedure that dentists will foist upon us. No doubt it will be, but it sounds as though it would be a good deal more pleasant than killing all the nerves in your tooth.

Time to Start Using New Examples for Nanotechnology Applications

At some point in most discussions of nanotechnology and its impact, we get definitions (with or without Greek etymology), it’s current and projected market value and a list of its applications whether they be its current ones or possible ones in the future.

Getting something other than this is sort of like asking someone to describe a spiral staircase without using their hands, it can be done but they have to concentrate for a moment. The same goes for nanotechnology. You can either stop for a moment and consider some new way of describing nanotechnology’s impact or you can do what’s usually done and give the same answers people have been offering for the last 10 years.

Granted the definition part is hard to be creative with, but I am getting pretty tired of seeing the same commercial applications trotted out year after year. The one that has finally got me annoyed is Nanocor’s use of nanoclays in plastics for beer bottles.

I guess what annoys me the most is my own frequent use of this example. I am not angry with myself so much for my lack of imagination, although that’s a factor, but that we are turning to the same commercial applications for examples that we were using 8 years ago.

I was beginning to feel renewed when I saw Russell Cowburn, Professor nanotechnology at Imperial College London (another lab I had the good fortune to tour), liken nanotechnology to Henry Ford’s production line. Cowburn goes on to describe how many people who first saw Ford’s production line mistakenly believed that it was only applicable to automobile manufacturing. He argues that people are making the same mistake today about nanotechnology. It is not restricted to a few specific areas of manufacturing but will one day be ubiquitous. Nicely done.

But my enthusiasm began to wane when I read in the same article Christof Woelcken, nanotechnology expert at Airbus Airframe Architecture and Integration Department, offer up nano-engineered paints for resisting the expansion and contraction of airplane parts as one of the applications for nanotechnology in aviation.

I have argued here myself that we need to understand that it is often the mundane that is interesting when looking at the applications for nanotechnology. But I would almost be more excited if he had talked about structural materials that made the plane lighter or maybe some fuel additives that made the engines more efficient. Of course, what I would really like to hear about is how nanotechnology is finally going to make possible the realization of the HyperSoar plane for commercial aircraft. Not that it's ever been on nanotechnology's list, I am just fascinated with the HyperSoar plane concept.

But I have to remember my own advice and remember also that patience is a virtue.

What Is a Nanotechnology Company Anyway?

Here is the latest nanotech investment urging I have bothered to look at that explains that despite the economic crisis there are still opportunities for nanotechnology companies and that means opportunities for investors, I suppose.

I stopped for a moment after reading this term “nanotechnology company” to consider what might actually constitute such a thing. Is Toyota a nanotechnology company as some nanotechnology stock indices have claimed? Is IBM a nanotechnology company because they are doing research into using graphene and carbon nanotubes in electronics? How about all the instrumentation and microscopy companies that give us the tools to see and to work on the nanometer and angstrom scale, are they nanotechnology companies? What about the flood of nanomaterials companies that started making carbon nanotubes in their basements that were going to revolutionize industry?

Well before you get that sorted, you need to understand that nanotechnology is a big opportunity because it’s being used to solve global warming.

"The threat of global warming is forcing industry to change more quickly than ever before," David Hwang, an emerging technology analyst with Lux Research is quoted as saying in the article linked to at the top of this blog, adding that [it (global warming)] presents opportunities for nanotechnology companies that can make products more efficient.

There’s that “nanotechnology companies” again. Since Hwang references lighter vehicles and more fuel-efficient ones, I suppose we will need to guess where along the lighter-and-more-fuel-efficient-vehicle value chain we should look for the opportunities.

Should we consider a company that has created a fuel additive from nanomaterials that makes diesel engines run more efficiently a nanotechnology company, and, if so, which one should we invest in? Or do we just go straight to the downstream product, the vehicles themselves, in which case we face the prospect of investing in automotive companies, not the most attractive notion based on the recent past.

While this information was apparently delivered at a nanotechnology symposium at Lehigh University, it would seem that the real target for this kind of insight is for businesses, investors and government funding agencies.

Despite figures ranging from one to three trillion dollars being dangled in front of people’s faces for the last 10 years, it doesn’t seem to have attracted the level of investment that would really make a difference in advancing the commercial aspirations of nanotechnologies if the recent PCAST meeting is any indication.

Perhaps the problem is the consistent use of vague market trends to highlight the need for an ill-defined set of technologies that merely enable other products and doesn’t constitute an industry itself.

Applications of Nanotechnology for Cycling are Not Restricted to Just the Bike

Last September I took a cursory look at the use of nanotechnology in bicycles, and drew the somewhat hesitant conclusion that it may be more about marketing than actually improving the qualities of the bike.

My extremely unscientific piece was picked up by the Cozy Beehive blog, which is penned by a mechanical engineer and a lover of cycling. I am great admirer of this blog since I am a cycling fan myself and I was really pleased to say the least that he picked up my entry.

Since blogs are usually read by people with at least the same interest as those who write them and often by those who share the same opinion, Cozy’s blog was commented on by other mechanical engineers and cycling enthusiasts and their comments were illuminating.

One comment suggested that carbon nanotubes are unlikely to help in protecting carbon fiber frames from cracking:

“Carbon Nanotubes are all well and good, but I don't think the failure mechanism for bikes is addressed by them. In general, when a carbon frame fails it is not some small crack propagation issue that would have been solved by micro-fibers mixed into the resin. It is rather a catastrophic failure of the resin in compression, which leads to complete crumple type failures. Nanotubes do little to address resin/laminate compression strength. I could see fatigue life of a frame increasing from their use, but should we really by using our frames anywhere near their fatigue life?”

That may help answer the question of what nanoparticles can do for improving the characteristics of bike frame materials, but as the nanotechnology community knows nanotech has many applications from structural materials to textiles.

In the video below we see that the cycling apparel company Castelli is now using a water repellent material that appears to be sourced from Schoeller Technologies that is famous for its Nano Sphere technology.

At least in this application, the benefit is clear and undeniable. 

Nanotech Innovation Gap Revisited

I have devoted a fair amount of pixels to the subject of the innovation gap in nanotech.

In my estimation it is a matter of more pressing concern than whether there’s nanoparticles in my electronics simply because if we don’t get this sorted all the environmental concerns surrounding nanotechnology will be made moot. (So all you NGOs out there, nanotechnology actually has to succeed before you can make it into the boogeyman.)

Despite my “jaundiced view” of the President’s Council on Science and Technology (PCAST) webcast (thanks, Frogheart) on the topic of the “Golden Triangle”, I watched nearly all of the first part before the lunch break. I should say in defense of my harsh characterization that the promotional copy that accompanied this webcast did a great disservice to it, and I would add was entirely inaccurate.

The meeting was not at all about getting the public's opinion on application directions for IT, biotech and nanotech, but instead was about getting the perspectives of the distinguished panel of experts on not what the next applications ought to be but what is stifling innovation in these fields.

The panelists brought varied perspectives to the subject, but they all seemed to share some common themes, most notably: the funding and innovation gap between a lab prototype and a commercial product is nearly unbridgeable with nearly no properly functioning funding or infrastructure mechanisms  to overcome it.

While one of the workshop’s chairpersons, Eric Schmidt, dismissed the oft-told stories of “lack of money” and a need for “better educated people” as the same tired old complaints as he looked vainly for some fundamental problem that could be solved, one could begin to see that in this case the fundamental problem might just be humanity.

We are too selfish, too greedy, too focused on our own interests and concerns for us to see that the fundamental problem could just be our common human sins. Just listening to each panel expert deliver their background gave you a hint at this. The instrumentation experts saw the problem being one of instrumentation, the academics who had just become neo-entrepreneurs saw it as a lack of angel investors and VCs, etc. etc. It went on and on like this.

For solutions the panel also included Judy Estrin who sees that the problem is that we don’t have any more Xerox Parcs, in other words, businesses have neglected their duty in conducting more basic research. This strikes me on a first look as being more a symptom than a fundamental cause or a solution.

Comments written in from the public that were screened and regurgitated for us were erudite and proposed new IP frameworks and all sorts of different innovation models from what we currently have. But the chairs seemed unmoved or uninterested in these, intent on finding either some quick, on-the-cheap fixes (Shirley Ann Jackson) or getting at the fundamental problem (Schmidt).

Once again it seems that the solutions here may best come in the form of incremental steps. A panelist from the University of Southern California detailed how critical a tool Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) has been to the development of many recent breakthroughs we have seen recently, and yet if the researchers who developed TEM were to seek funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop that instrument today they wouldn’t be able to get it.

The development costs would have to be in the millions and the best the researchers could hope for would be hundreds thousands of dollars. Chad Mirkin reinforced this by noting that currently the NSF has a couple of million dollars set aside for developing new instrumentation technologies, but they are splitting the project between 13 bids, resulting in many small grants all of which won’t get the researchers anywhere but may satisfy some notion of spreading the wealth.

Here’s a quick fix, spend the same amount of money you are planning but focus it on fewer projects.

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


Dexter Johnson
Madrid, Spain
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