February 21st, 2010 by Collin Canright | Filed under Technology.

Nanoscience and nanotechnology are “an important part of the Chicago technology fabric,” said Terry Flanigan, MIF Enterprise Forum Chicago chairman, in introducing the Feb. 16 program. A number of Chicago-based companies are pioneering products based on nanotech, while Chicago’s Argonne National Laboratory houses one of national center for nanoscience sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.

One of Argonne’s top nanoscientists, Dr. Tijuana Rajh, Group Leader for the NanoBio Interface Group at Argonne National Laboratory explained the basics of nanoscience and nanotechnology and gave an overview of nano-based applications that are likely to revolutionize energy and medicine. Nanoscience combines physics, chemistry, and biology and, like the physical, chemical, and biological functions that take place at the nano-scale, it’s different and greater than any of the three alone.

TiO2 Nanoparticle-DNA Molecule

TiO2 Nanoparticle-DNA Molecule

The nano scale—roughly smaller than molecules and larger than atoms—is “the natural threshold where all living systems and man-made systems work,” Dr. Rajh said. Chemicals and atoms display different electronic and light properties and behaviors at the nano-scale than at regular scale.

Nanoscience provides “an integration of physical laws and chemical precision with biological selectivity.” In other words, the laws of physics can be controlled with the precision available to the chemist manipulating molecules in order to intervene in biological systems.

Indeed, Dr. Rajh’s group at Argonne is working with the University of Chicago to treat cancer with nano-bio technology. They have been able to fuse inorganic nanoparticles to organic proteins at the DNA level and create a way to target and destroy cancer cells and only cancer cells. Nanoscientists are also developing new materials that will make solar energy more efficient and batteries more effective.

Nanoscience started in the 1980s, with the development scanning tunneling microscopy (SMT), invented by two IBM researchers in 1981. In that respect, it reminds me of neuroscience, which took off in the 1990s with the development of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Earlier on, physicists learned how to master the strong forces of nature, like thermodynamics. Now nanoscientists are learning how to master the weak forces that the atomic scientists theorized than then substantiated experimentally.

Nanoparticles are man-made substances that behave like artificial atoms, and since the 1980s nanoscientists have perfected the synthesis of new materials. “The implications are huge,” Dr. Rajh said. “We have crystal-like structures and we can therefore create new materials,” she said. “You can custom design energy properties not existing in nature.” In effect, nanoscience has, in the words of MIT EF member Richard Cross PhD, freed science from the “tyranny of the periodic table (of the elements).”

It’s the frontier of research. “We don’t know what to expect and don’t know what will happen,” said Dr. Rajh. “Not we can push the boundaries of science by creating a new periodic table.”

For more details, view a video of a similar presentation given by Dr. Rajh for an Argonne colloquium.


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