Can Big Data Shed Light on Nanotech Research?

Photo: Duke University

It can take days for a supercomputer to unravel all the data contained in a single human genome. So it wasn’t long after mapping the first human genome that researchers coined the umbrella term “bioinformatics” in which a variety of methods and computer technologies are used for organizing and analyzing all that data.

Now teams of researchers led by scientists at Duke University believe that the field of nanotechnology has reached a critical mass of data and that a new field needs to be established, dubbed “nanoinformatics.”

If you’re not convinced that there’s as much data being produced in nanotechnology research as there is genetic research, you can choose to use the other buzz word of our time “big data,” which seems to be used interchangeably in the research, which was published in the journal Beilstein Journal of Nanotechnology.

How’s this going to work? Say you’re testing silver nanoparticles in a Florida swamp versus those same particles in the Amazon river. The tests may appear to have different results based on a number of variables. The new approach will start to establish research guidelines for compiling and curating data so that it will become easier to compare apples and apples, and, presumably, to know when you’re comparing apples with oranges.

“We chose curation as the focus of this first paper because there are so many disparate efforts that are all over the road in terms of their missions, and the only thing they all have in common is that somehow they have to enter data into their resources,” said Christine Hendren, a research scientist at Duke and executive director of the Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT), in the press release. “So we chose that as the kernel of this effort to be as broad as possible in defining a baseline for the nanoinformatics community.”

The curation part of the project, which is being conducted by the Nanomaterial Data Curation Initiative (NDCI), a project of the National Cancer Informatics Nanotechnology Working Group (NCIP NanoWG), will include six research papers in total that will examine vocabulary, definitions and research environments to better organize research.

The second part of the research, which is represented by another research paper that has been published in the journal Science of The Total Environment, proposes a new standardized approach to studying the properties of nanomaterials.

“If we’re going to move the field forward, we have to be able to agree on what measurements are going to be useful, which systems they should be measured in and what data gets reported, so that we can make comparisons,” said Hendren, in the release.

As with the other research paper, it would seem the primary concern is studying the properties of nanomaterials to determine their environmental impact. So, if you’re solid-state physicist interested in how the physical properties of magnetism or electrical conductivity change when combined with another two-dimensional material, this may not be the kind of big data that will inform your research.

While being able to better organize and analyze data to study the impact of nanomaterials on the environment should benefit the field, what seems to remain a more pressing concern is having the tools for measuring nanomaterials outside of a vacuum and in water and air environments.

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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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