Saturday, June 30, 2007

Scientists call for global push to advance research in synthetic biology

Signatories of the statement (left to right): science writer Philip Ball, Scott Fraser, Jay Keasling, John Glass, Petra Schwille, David Bensimon, Julie Theriot, Freeman Dyson, Joe Howard, Hiroaki Kitano, Steven Chu, Drew Endy, Paul McEuen, Robert Hazen, Angela Belcher, Robert Austin, Cees Dekker. (Ehud Shapiro not in photograph.)Forecasting a revolution in science, the 'Ilulissat Statement' concludes an international meeting of renowned researchers at the inaugural Kavli Futures Symposium. High Resolution Image
Oxnard, Calif., June 25, 2007 – With research backgrounds ranging from materials engineering to molecular biophysics, seventeen leading scientists issued a statement today announcing that, much as the discovery of DNA and creation of the transistor revolutionized science, there is a new scientific field on the brink of revolutionizing our approach to problems ranging from eco-safe energy to outbreaks of malaria.

That research area is synthetic biology – the construction or redesign of biological systems components that do not naturally exist, by combining the engineering applications and practices of nanoscience with molecular biology.

“The early twenty-first century is a time of tremendous promise and tremendous peril,” includes the statement. “We face daunting problems of climate change, energy, health, and water resources. Synthetic biology offers solutions to these issues: microorganisms that convert plant matter to fuels or that synthesize new drugs or target and destroy rogue cells in the body.”

The two-page statement calls for an international effort to advance synthetic biology that would not only propel research, but do so while developing protective measures against accidents and abuses of synthetic biology.

The statement was issued following the conclusion of the first Kavli Futures Symposium, held June 11-15 in Ilulissat, Greenland. Signed unanimously, signatories include scientists from the California Institute of Technology, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Cornell University, J. Craig Venter Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the Institute for Advanced Study, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University, Stanford University, and University of California at Berkeley (United States); Ecole Normale Superieure (France); Delft University of Technology (The Netherlands); Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, TU Dresden (Germany); Weizman Institute of Science (Israel); Systems Biology Institute, and Sony Computer Science Laboratories (Japan).

“When we gathered at the Kavli Futures Symposium, researchers – among the best in their fields – in areas such as nanoscience, physics, biology, materials science and engineering met to share their expertise and brainstorm on one of the most promising yet controversial fields facing science today,” said Cees Dekker, professor of molecular biophysics in the Kavli Institute of NanoScience at the Delft University of Technology. “That we not only achieved a consensus, but resolved to issue a unanimous statement on the critical importance of this field is significant.”

The statement also addresses the uncertainties of synthetic biology. “As with any powerful technology, the promise comes with risk. We need to develop protective measures against accidents and abuses of synthetic biology. A system of best practices must be established to foster positive uses of the technology and suppress negative ones. The risks are real; but the potential benefits are truly extraordinary.”

The statement’s recommendations include creation of a professional organization that will engage with the broader society to maximize the benefits, minimize the risks, and oversee the ethics of synthetic life.

“This is a critical moment for synthetic biology,” said Paul McEuen, professor of physics, Cornell University. “The choices facing us now – the scientific investments we make and the rules we set down to govern the field – will impact society for decades to come.”

The symposium was sponsored by The Kavli Foundation and co-hosted and organized by The Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscience and The Kavli Institute of Nanoscience at Delft University of Technology. “This is the first of a series of unique symposia that focus on the trends, challenges and opportunities for future scientific research,” said David Auston, president of the Kavli Foundation. “By emphasizing a forward looking perspective, the Kavli Futures Symposia provide a forum for discussion of the key issues facing future developments and directions in specific fields, and thereby help to define and guide the development of the research in these fields.” Said Fred Kavli, founder of The Kavli Foundation, “I am delighted at the success of this inaugural symposium, which has not only taken a look into the future of science, but provided the first steps toward navigating a successful journey into an exciting and challenging new frontier.” ###

Contact: Blaine Friedlander 607-254-8093 Cornell University News Service

Statement Signatories:

International. France: David Bensimon, Ecole Normale Superieure, Germany: Joe Howard, Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics; Petra Schwille, TU Dresden, Israel: Ehud Shapiro, Weizman Institute of Science, Japan: Hiroaki Kitano, Systems Biology Institute, and Sony Computer Science Laboratories, The Netherlands: Cees Dekker, Delft University of Technology

United States: Robert Austin, Princeton University Angela Belcher, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Steven Chu, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Freeman Dyson, Institute for Advanced Study Drew Endy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Scott Fraser, California Institute of Technology John Glass, J. Craig Venter Institute Robert Hazen, Carnegie Institution of Washington Jay Keasling, University of California at Berkeley Paul McEuen, Cornell University Julie Theriot, Stanford University

For further information about the Ilulissat Statement, or about The Kavli Futures Symposium “The merging of bio and nano: towards cyborg cells” contact: Prof. Cees DekkerKavli Institute of NanoScience, Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands 31-15-278-6094, Prof. Paul McEuen The Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscience, Cornell University, USA. 607-255-5193

About The Kavli Foundation: Established in 2000, The Kavli Foundation is dedicated to the advancement of science for the benefit of humanity. The Kavli Foundation supports scientific research, honors scientific achievement, and promotes public understanding of scientists and their work through an international program of research institutes, professorships and symposia in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience. The Foundation also supports the Kavli Prize, which beginning in 2008 will recognize the world’s outstanding leaders in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience.

The Kavli Prize is presented in partnership with the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Nominations will be reviewed by leading international experts recommended by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society, the Max Planck Society, the French Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Each Kavli Prize includes an award of one million dollars. More information can be found at and

Media Contacts: United States, James Cohen, Director of Communications The Kavli Foundation 805 278-7495, Blaine P. Friedlander, Assistant Director Press Relations Office Cornell University

The Netherlands Frank Nuijens, Science Information Officer Delft University of Technology 31–15–278-42-59

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Friday, June 29, 2007

Influence of a cancer inhibitor on a single DNA molecule

Figure 1. The composition of a DNA molecule. Four building blocks, which are called nucleotides, are always in the same way in front of each other. An Adenine in front of Thymine and Guanine in front of Cytosine. www.genome.govTU Delft tracks the influence of a cancer inhibitor on a single DNA molecule

Researchers in Delft University of Technology’s Kavli Institute of Nanoscience in The Netherlands have cast new light on the workings of the important cancer inhibitor topotecan. Little had been known about the underlying molecular mechanism, but the Delft scientists can now view the effects of the medicine live at the levelin of a single DNA molecule.
The research is being published this week in the journal Nature. The lead author of the article, Daniel Koster, will receive his PhD at TU Delft on Monday June 25, partly on the results described in the article.

The medicine investigated, topotecan, interacts with an important protein (TopoIB), causing a (cancer) cell to malfunction. The TopoIB protein is responsible for the removal of loops from DNA, which arise amongst other things during cell division. The TopoIB protein binds to the DNA molecule, clamps around it and cuts one of the two DNA strands, after which it allows it to unwind and finally joins the broken ends together.

Until now it has been supposed that topotecan only causes the TopoIB protein to reside longer than normal on the DNA molecule, disturbing the cell division and damaging the (cancer) cell. But the Delft researchers have now discovered to their surprise that adding topotecan also dramatically impedes the unwinding and that DNA loops accumulate as a result. The accumulation of these DNA loops forms the basis for an alternative mechanism, and could help in the development of better cancer medicine.

PhD candidate Daniel Koster, Master’s student Elisa Bot and researcher Nynke Dekker of the Molecular Biophysics group of the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience Delft have managed to unravel this mechanism in an extremely direct manner. In the laboratory they fixed a single DNA molecule between a glass plate and a magnetic sphere. With the help of two magnets they could both pull and twist the DNA molecule. When they added TopoIB to a twisted piece of DNA, they saw that the loops were slowly removed. What is exceptional is that the action of one TopoIB enzyme on one DNA molecule could be observed live. In collaboration with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Memphis (USA) the mechanism could also be observed in living yeast cells. ###

The research, to be published by Nature in advance on the Internet on Sunday, June 24, is supported by the Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.

Contact: Frank Nuijens 31-152-784-259 Delft University of Technology

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

MSU professors spearhead international water project

Caption: Precise control of water transport through a nanotube membrane is demonstrated by a novel electro-chemical approach. Credit: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Usage Restrictions: NoneEAST LANSING, Mich. — Two Michigan State University professors, Volodymyr Tarabara and Tom Voice, are leading an ambitious project to purify the world’s waters.
Tarabara and Voice are leading an international partnership of environmental engineers and scientists from two U.S. research universities, two research centers in France, and three institutions in Ukraine and Russia that will create new technologies for the project.

With the biggest funding of its kind – a $2.5 million grant – by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the team leaders are bringing together domestic and international expertise, as well as investing in students, to develop water purifying strategies using what are called “membrane-based” technologies.

“Membrane-based technologies selectively remove things such as chemicals and particles from water,” said Voice, professor of civil and environmental engineering. “They are analogous to filters except they remove things that are smaller and separate on the basis of chemistry and size. Our project is looking at developing new types of membranes and membrane systems that perform better in water treatment applications.”

Membranes can produce ultrapure water, removing almost everything.

“They are used in some places to turn sea water into fresh water,” said Voice. “The challenge is to do this cost effectively, and we seek to do this by improving their performance.”

Development of robust membranes is a significant opportunity to enhance the quality of water and, ultimately, public health, especially in developing countries.

“NSF’s initiative to invest in international education and research is relatively new,” said Tarabara, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. “It was motivated by the recognition that the world is becoming increasingly more global and that for American graduates to successfully compete with researchers from other countries, they have to be better prepared for the challenges of working in the global marketplace.”

The team’s strength, said Tarabara, is that each institution brings something unique to the table.

“For example, research to develop stronger hollow fiber membranes will unite the world-renowned expertise in carbon nanotube chemistry at Rice University with the knowledge of hollow fiber membrane manufacture and optimization at France’s National Polytechnic Institute of Toulouse,” he said.

“Development of high-flux membranes to remove heavy metal contaminants will include the group in Kiev, which is heavily involved in this work due to local environmental contamination, along with a group from MSU which is developing high-flux membranes that reject large molecules.”

This project also internationalizes the experience of the students involved by enhancing the learning competencies that reflect the knowledge, attitudes and skills essential to living and working as global citizens when they graduate.

“One premise of our partnership is that students are powerful catalysts for research collaboration,” Tarabara said. “Our research will be organized in international teams in which at least one doctoral student from a foreign institution will be teamed with a student from a U.S. institution.”

Currently, seven graduate students – four from MSU and three from Duke University – are funded through this project.

This project also emphasizes diversity in graduate student recruitment and works with existing conduits to K-12 programs. The partnership will maximize opportunities for involvement of underrepresented minorities and women and will have an impact on future generations of scientists, according to Tarabara.

When the nonrenewable five-year, grant expires, Tarabara said, the project will live on.

“We are working with industrial partners in the United States and abroad to ensure that the project is sustained after the NSF funding is over,” he said.

For more information on Partnership for Education and Research in Membrane Nanotechnology, visit ###

Michigan State University has been advancing knowledge and transforming lives through innovative teaching, research and outreach for more than 150 years. MSU is known internationally as a major public university with global reach and extraordinary impact. Its 16 degree-granting colleges attract scholars worldwide who are interested in combining education with practical problem solving.

Image Credit: Caption: Precise control of water transport through a nanotube membrane is demonstrated by a novel electro-chemical approach. Credit: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Usage Restrictions: None

Contact: Ike Val Iyioke 517-432-0924 Michigan State University

Contact: Volodymyr Tarabara, civil and environmental engineering: (517) 432-1755,; Tom Voice, civil and environmental engineering: (517) 353-9718,; or Ike Val Iyioke, University Relations: (517) 432-0924,

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

New nano-method may help compress computer memory

Simply changing the ratio of two chemicals in solution changes the length of iron-platinum nanowires and nanorods: transmission electron microscope images of a) 200 nm wires; b) 50 nm wires; c) 20 nm rods; d) two individual 50 nm wires. Credit: Chao Wang & Jaemin Kim/Brown University, Usage Restrictions: NoneA team of chemists at Brown University have devised a simple way to synthesize iron-platinum nanorods and nanowires while controlling both size and composition. Nanorods with uniform shape and magnetic alignment are one key to the next generation of high-density information storage, but have been difficult to make in bulk.
The technique, published June 22 in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition, produces nanorods and nanowires from 20 nm to 200 nm long, simply by varying the ratio of solvent and surfactant used in synthesis. Shouheng Sun, a professor of chemistry at Brown University, postdoctoral researcher Yanglong Hou, and colleagues have also demonstrated that the same technique works to control the shape of cobalt-platinum nanorods, suggesting that it may work for many other combinations as well.

Just a few years ago, the average computer user’s documents, applications and even photos seemed to rattle around a 120 GB disk drive. Today’s multimedia-intensive user can exhaust that capacity in no time and the need continues to grow, but engineers expect to max out conventional magnetic storage techniques by about 2010. At that point, they’ll be looking for nanotechnology to step up. Whether it will be ready, remains to be seen.

“Many people think that shape can control alignment,” said Sun, “but controlling shape has not been so easy. This method gives us a really simple way to tune length, diameter and composition all at the same time” said Huang.

A magnetic storage surface &ndash the disk of a hard-disk drive &ndash consists of tiny sectors of magnetically-aligned particles. When the read-write head of a disk drive passes over a sector, it flips the magnetic field to the opposite direction &ndash encoding a zero or a one. When it reads, it senses the magnetic field for the whole sector. To pack more information into a smaller area, engineers can make the particles smaller or the sectors smaller, but they need enough particles so that the occasional random flip doesn’t corrupt the whole sector.

It is now possible to apply magnetic nanoparticles in a thin, dense layer, but the magnetic fields of randomly-oriented spherical particles tend to cancel each other out. Instead of lining up at six o’clock or twelve o’clock, many particles align at two, three, four or five o’clock, diluting the overall strength of the magnetic signal.

Long, narrow nanorods could pack alongside each other, with their magnetic fields oriented in only two directions. Imagine a plate covered with Good and Plenty’s rather than fireballs. The elongated candies line up side-by-side, while the balls role around randomly. Nanorods, aligned in the same direction, should produce a stronger signal and switch cleanly from zero to one and vice versa.

The method developed by Sun, Hou, and graduate students Chao Wang and Jaemin Kim produces batches of similarly-sized nanowires or nanorods in solution. The researchers found that including more surfactant (oleylamine) in the reaction mixture produced longer wires and that more solvent (octadecene) gave shorter rods. A three-to-one ratio of surfactant to solvent yielded 100 nm wires, while a one-to-one ratio produced 20 nm rods.

Based on this pattern, plus transmission electron microscope and x-ray diffraction images, the researchers think that surfactant molecules create protective tunnels around the growing nanorods, guiding them into longer, rather than thicker shapes. The surfactant molecules line up with water-loving tails inward and water-repellant heads out. With more surfactant in the solution, the tunnels (and the nanorods inside) grow longer before solvent molecules interrupt the pattern.

In addition to information storage, the method has great potential in other areas where very dense magnetic charge is an advantage, including magnetic motors and generators. The stability and biocompatibility of the iron-platinum alloy also make such nanorods and nanowires good candidates for biological applications.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), Information Storage Industry Consortium (INSIC), and the Office of Naval Research all contributed funding for this project.

Editors: Brown University has a fiber link television studio available for domestic and international live and taped interviews and maintains an ISDN line for radio interviews. For more information, call the Office of Media Relations at (401) 863-2476.

Contact: Martha Downs 401-863-2752 Brown University

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The smallest piece of ice reveals its true nature

Caption: The 'smallest particle of ice' -- a water hexamer as seen by STM (about 1 nanometer wide, left) and quantum mechanics (right). Credit: London Centre for Nanotechnology, 2007, Usage Restrictions: None.Collaborative research between scientists in the UK and Germany (published in this week’s Nature Materials) has led to a breakthrough in the understanding of the formation of ice.
Dr Angelos Michaelides of the London Centre for Nanotechnology (formerly of the Fritz-Haber Institut der Max-Planck Gesellschaft in Berlin) and Professor Karina Morgenstern of the Leibniz University Hannover have combined experimental observations with theoretical modelling to reveal with unprecedented resolution the structures of the smallest pieces of ice that form on hydrophobic metal surfaces.

The results provide information about the process of ice nucleation at a molecular level and take science a significant step closer to understanding the mysterious process through which ice forms around microscopic dust particles in the upper atmosphere. Because this is the basis of cloud formation, knowing how different particles promote ice formation is crucial for climate change models.

The authors began by cooling down a metallic surface to 5 degrees above absolute zero (around –268 Celsius) at which temperature it was possible to “trap” and obtain images of the smallest possible pieces (hexamers) of ice using a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM). The hexamer – the simplest and most basic “snow flake” – is composed of just six water molecules. Other ice nanoclusters containing seven, eight and nine molecules were also imaged.

On the difficulties of imaging these ice clusters, Prof Morgenstern said: “Scientists have long struggled to resolve single water molecules within ice clusters, because they are so vulnerable to damage induced by electrons – the very thing that creates the image. The high resolution could only be achieved by reducing the current to the smallest value technically possible.”

As well as performing experiments, the team used highly-accurate (‘first principles’) theoretical models to analyse how such a structure could form. Here the theory provided some surprising insights. In ice, water molecules usually bond to each other with equal strength but with the ice nanoclusters the team identified a pattern of alternating shorter and longer bonds between the water molecules. This pattern provided new information about the ability of water molecules to share their hydrogen bonds, revealing a hitherto unknown competition between the ability of water molecules to bind to a metal surface and simultaneously accept hydrogen bonds.

Dr Michaelides said, “We are all familiar with the freezing of water. It features prominently in our daily lives, from fridge freezers to winter snow. Despite all this, the question of how individual water molecules come together and give birth to ice crystals remains mysterious. Our research provides an insight into the most important and ubiquitous type of ice nucleation event, namely heterogeneous nucleation. State-of-the-art experimental and theoretical techniques allowed us to “watch” and accurately model what happens at very low temperatures.”

The research makes it possible to explain the ways in which water structures form on different substrates, such as transition metals and salt surfaces. It may also provide a new way of thinking about the structure of ice clusters that form on solid surfaces in general, opening the door for applications in a variety of fields as diverse as astronomy, electrochemistry, and energy research. It also takes us a step closer to understanding how water interacts with different aerosols and dust particles in the atmosphere, processes which drive cloud formation and have a large impact on the planet’s climate. ###

Notes to editors: Contact details: For more information and high-resolution images, please contact Dave Weston at the London Centre for Nanotechnology on tel: +44 (0)20 7679 7678, mobile: +44 (0) 7733 307 596, out of hours +44 (0)7917 271 364, e-mail:

Funding: Work at the Fritz-Haber-Institut der Max-Planck-Gsesllschaft was funded by the Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and European Science Foundation through a European Young Investigator Award (EURYI). See

Work at the London Centre for Nanotechnology was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and European Science Foundation through a European Young Investigator Award (EURYI). See

Work at the Leibniz University of Hannover was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG).

About the London Centre for Nanotechnology, The London Centre for Nanotechnology is a joint enterprise between University College London and Imperial College London. In bringing together world-class infrastructure and leading nanotechnology research activities, the Centre aims to attain the critical mass to compete with the best facilities abroad. Furthermore by acting as a bridge between the biomedical, physical, chemical and engineering sciences the Centre will cross the 'chip-to-cell interface' - an essential step if the UK is to remain internationally competitive in biotechnology. Website:

About UCL, Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. In the government’s most recent Research Assessment Exercise, 59 UCL departments achieved top ratings of 5* and 5, indicating research quality of international excellence.

UCL is the fourth-ranked UK university in the 2006 league table of the top 500 world universities produced by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. UCL alumni include Mahatma Gandhi (Laws 1889, Indian political and spiritual leader); Jonathan Dimbleby (Philosophy 1969, writer and television presenter); Junichiro Koizumi (Economics 1969, Prime Minister of Japan); Lord Woolf (Laws 1954, Lord Chief Justice of England & Wales); Alexander Graham Bell (Phonetics 1860s, inventor of the telephone), and members of the band Coldplay.

Contact: Dave Weston 44-020-767-97678 University College London

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Scientists demonstrate high-performing room-temperature nanolaser

Honeycomb-like Photonic Crystal Helps Nanolaser Achieve High Efficiency

A new nanolaser produces stable, continuous near-infrared light at room temperature with great efficiency with the help of a honeycomb-like pattern known as a photonic crystal.  (Courtesy Yokohama National University, Japan)A new nanolaser produces stable, continuous near-infrared light at room temperature with great efficiency with the help of a honeycomb-like pattern known as a photonic crystal.
(Courtesy Yokohama National University, Japan)
WASHINGTON, June 20--Scientists at Yokohama National University in Japan have built a highly efficient room-temperature nanometer-scale laser that produces stable, continuous streams of near-infrared laser light. The overall device has a width of several microns (millionths of a meter), while the part of the device that actually produces laser light has dimensions at the nanometer scale in all directions. The laser uses only a microwatt of power, one of the smallest operating powers ever achieved. This nanolaser design should be useful in future miniaturized circuits containing optical devices. The researchers present their nanolaser in the latest issue of Optics Express, an open-access journal published by the Optical Society of America.

The laser is made of a semiconductor material known as gallium indium arsenide phosphate (GaInAsP). The laser's small size and efficiency were made possible by employing a design, first demonstrated at the California Institute of Technology in 1999, known as a photonic-crystal laser. In this design, researchers drill a repeating pattern of holes through the laser material. This pattern is called a photonic crystal. The researchers deliberately introduced an irregularity, or defect, into the crystal pattern, for example by slightly shifting the positions of two holes. Together, the photonic crystal pattern and the defect prevent light waves of most colors (frequencies) from existing in the structure, with the exception of a small band of frequencies that can exist in the region near the defect.

By operating at room temperature and in a mode where laser light is emitted continuously, the new nanolaser from Yokohama National University distinguishes itself from previous designs. For a laser device that depends on the delicate effects of quantum mechanics, the random noise associated with even a moderately warm environment usually overwhelms the process of producing laser light. Yet this laser operates at room temperature. It also produces a continuous output of light, rather than a series of pulses. This desirable continuous operation is more difficult to achieve because it requires careful management of the device's power consumption and heat dissipation.

According to Yokohama researcher Toshihiko Baba, the new nanolaser can be operated in two modes depending what kind of "Q" value is chosen. Q refers to quality factor, the ability for an oscillating system to continue before running out of energy. A common example of an oscillating system would be a tuning fork. The higher its Q value, the longer it will ring after being struck. Lasers are oscillating systems because they produce light waves that repeatedly bounce back and forth inside the device to build up a beam. Nanolasers operated in a high-Q mode (20,000) will be useful for optical devices in tiny chips (optical integrated circuits). In a moderate-Q (1500) configuration the nanolaser needs only an extremely small amount of external power to bring the device to the threshold of producing laser light. In this near-thresholdless operation, the same technology will permit the emission of very low light levels, even single photons.

Article: Kengo Nozaki, Shota Kita, and Toshihiko Baba, "Room temperature continuous wave operation and controlled spontaneous emission in ultrasmall photonic crystal nanolaser," Optics Express, Vol. 15, Issue 12, pp. 7506-7514, full text available at

About Optics Express Optics Express, the leading optics journal, reports on new developments in all fields of optical science and technology every two weeks. The journal provides rapid publication of original, peer-reviewed papers. It is published by the Optical Society of America and edited by Martijn de Sterke of the University of Sydney. Optics Express is an open-access journal and is available at no cost to readers online at .

About OSA, Uniting more than 70,000 professionals from 134 countries, the Optical Society of America (OSA) brings together the global optics community through its programs and initiatives. Since 1916 OSA has worked to advance the common interests of the field, providing educational resources to the scientists, engineers and business leaders who work in the field by promoting the science of light and the advanced technologies made possible by optics and photonics.

OSA publications, events, technical groups and programs foster optics knowledge and scientific collaboration among all those with an interest in optics and photonics. For more information, visit ###

Contact: Colleen Morrison 202-416-1437 Optical Society of America

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Researchers Develop Buckyballs to Fight Allergy VIDEO

Chris Kepley, Ph.D., M.B.A., assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Rheumatology, Allergy and Immunology at the VCU School of Medicine."We hope to tune these nanoparticles into usable therapeutics"

"Diabetes, asthma, arthritis also may be targets for treatment"

Chris Kepley, Ph.D., M.B.A., assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Rheumatology,
Allergy and Immunology at the VCU School of Medicine.

A research team has identified a new biological function for a soccer ball-shaped nanoparticle called a buckyball – the ability to block allergic response, setting the stage for the development of new therapies for allergy.

Allergic disease is the sixth leading cause of chronic disease in the United States, and while various treatments have been developed to control allergy, no cure has been found. These findings advance the emerging field of medicine known as nanoimmunology.

The researchers, from Virginia Commonwealth University and Luna Innovations Inc., a private, Roanoke, Va., research company, are the first to show that buckyballs are able to block allergic response in human cell culture experiments.

Buckyballs, or fullerenes, are nanoparticles containing 60 carbon atoms. Due to their unique structure, inertness and stability, researchers from a number of scientific fields have been investigating the tiny, hollow carbon cages to serve a variety of functions. In this study, researchers modified the buckyballs so that they were compatible with water. The new study findings were published online in the June 19 issue of the Journal of Immunology and will appear in the July 1 print issue of the journal.

"This discovery is exciting because it points to the possibility that these novel materials can one day lead to new therapies," said Chris Kepley, Ph.D., M.B.A., assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Rheumatology, Allergy and Immunology at the VCU School of Medicine.

"Researchers in many fields are aware of the potential fullerenes have, however, we are the first to show they can turn off the allergic response and basic immune reactions," he said.

According to Kepley, who is the principal author of the paper, the buckyballs are able to 'interrupt' the allergy/immune response by inhibiting a basic process in the cell that leads to the release of an allergic mediator. Essentially, the buckyballs are able to prevent mast cells from releasing histamine.

Mast cells are responsible for causing allergic response and are packed with granules containing histamine. They are present in nearly all tissues except blood. When mast cells are activated, inflammatory substances such as histamine, heparin and a number of cytokines are rapidly released into the tissues and blood, promoting an allergic response.

The researchers found that the unique structure of the buckyball enables it to bind to free radicals dramatically better than any anti-oxidant currently available, such as vitamin E. Free radicals are molecules that cause oxidative stress, which experts believe may be the basis of aging.

"The immune system both protects us and causes harm, so we are always interested in finding new pathways to help manage the harmful effects," said Kepley.

This research was supported in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network.

Researchers from VCU working with Kepley included: John J. Ryan, Ph.D., from the Department of Biology; Wei Zhao, M.D., Ph.D., from the Department of Pediatrics; and Lawrence Schwartz, M.D., Ph.D., and Greg Gomez, Ph.D., from the Department of Internal Medicine.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A copy of the study is available to reporters in PDF format by email request from the American Association of Immunologists at

About VCU and the VCU Medical Center: Virginia Commonwealth University is the largest university in Virginia and ranks among the top 100 universities in the country in sponsored research. Located on two downtown campuses in Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 30,000 students in nearly 200 certificate and degree programs in the arts, sciences and humanities.

Sixty-three of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 15 schools and one college. MCV Hospitals and the health sciences schools of Virginia Commonwealth University compose the VCU Medical Center, one of the nation’s leading academic medical centers.For more, see

Sathya Achia-Abraham University News Services (804) 827-0890

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

FISH on a chip offers quicker, less costly cancer diagnosis

FISH on a chip offers quicker, less costly cancer diagnosis

For the first time an important diagnostic test for cancer has been miniaturized and automated onto a microfluidic chip by a team of University of Alberta researchers.

This new technology opens up the possibility of better, faster cancer treatment and greater accessibility to the test, thanks to quicker and more cost-efficient diagnosis.

A metaphase cell positive for the bcr/abl rearrangement using FISH. The chromosomes can be seen in blue. The chromosome that is labeled with green and red spots (up left) is the one where the wrong rearrangement is presentChris Backhouse, professor of electrical engineering and cancer scientist Dr. Linda Pilarski have developed a microfluidic chip the size of a microscope slide that can perform fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH) on a handheld diagnostic device.
FISH is an important and complex test that detects mutations in chromosomes for a number of different types of cancer. The test involves attaching coloured dyes to chromosomes as a way to visualize and count them as well as to detect cancer-promoting breaks and rejoinings of chromosomes. These abnormalities provide clinically valuable information about disease outcomes and response to therapy. This new system will allow FISH to be rapidly performed for a fraction of the cost of current analysis methods. Compared to conventional methods for FISH, which can take days to perform, the on-chip FISH test can be done in less than a day with a ten-fold higher rate of processing and a reduction in costs from hundreds to tens of dollars.

This digital document is a journal article from Mut.Res.-Genetic Toxicology and Environmental Mutagenesis, published by Elsevier in 2007. The article is delivered in HTML format and is available in your Media Library immediately after purchase. You can view it with any web browser.

Although there has been a rapid rise in the application of fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH) analysis of bone marrow tissue for the staging and prognosis determination of hematopoietic malignacies such as the chronic and acute leukemias, it's application as a surveillance tool for leukemogen exposed high risk occupational cohorts is understandably limited by the invasiveness of sample collection. While some small occupational studies have been performed using FISH in peripheral blood with promising results, some of the basic assumptions made in utilizing the FISH technique have not been fully explored.
Because of the complexity and expense of current technology, FISH is infrequently used in clinical situations. FISH on a chip will allow widespread use of the tests because of its higher speed and lower costs. The rapid detection of chromosomal mutations will significantly increase a physician's ability to tailor treatment strategies to target individual cancers.

"The ability to design 'personalized' therapies means that patients will be able to receive more effective treatments sooner and avoid exposure to side effects from treatments that will not help them," Pilarski said.

"This is representative of how miniaturization can make our health care more accessible while creating new economic opportunities here in Alberta," Backhouse added.

"FISH and chip is a prime example of knowledge transfer taking place everyday at the University of Alberta," said U of A President Indira Samarasekera. "This research epitomizes our duties of citizenship and our role as an economic engine. Combining engineering and oncology, Professors Backhouse and Pilarski, along with the most talented graduate students in the country, will make a great impact in the community, health care system, and the economy of Canada with their breakthrough research of automated chromosome analysis. In hospitals and clinics, I envision a plethora of remarkable outcomes for patients," she said.

"The work of Dr. Pilarski and her associates will have great impact, and quite quickly - on the diagnosis of patients with a broad spectrum of diseases," said Dr. Roderick McInnes, Scientific Director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Institute of Genetics. "Their FISH and chip technology should allow rapid and inexpensive diagnosis of important genetic changes that can underlie cancer and many developmental and neurological disorders. The type of product that these scientists have produced is a major example of the kind of innovation that Canada needs, innovation that grew out of the government's support of fundamental research in medicine and engineering."

The FISH and chips project was made possible by graduate student research, which plays a vital role in the day-to-day innovation that results in advances like this, Pilarski added.

The work is being published this month in IET Nanobiotechnology. It is also being presented at the 11th International Myeloma Workshop, a medical conference being held in Greece June 25-30.

Backhouse and Pilarski are part of the Alberta Cancer Diagnostic Consortium (ACDC), a multidisciplinary team at the University of Alberta and the Cross Cancer Institute that links engineering and medicine. The FISH and chip technology is one of several projects the group is developing and commercializing as automated, real-time tests for the detection and monitoring of cancer and other medical conditions. i-LOC Corp., a spin-off company supported by TEC Edmonton, the U of A's business incubator, was incorporated in November 2006 to commercialize the ACDC technology.
Funding for the research was provided by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and Western Economic Diversification Canada.

The University of Alberta in Edmonton is one of the top 100 teaching and research universities in the world serving some 36,000 students with more than 11,000 faculty and staff. Founded almost a century ago, the university has an annual budget in excess of $1 billion and attracts more than $400 million in external research funding. The university offers close to 400 undergraduate and graduate programs in 18 faculties. -30-

For more information contact: Dr. Linda Pilarski, Professor of Oncology, Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Alberta, 780-432-8925.

Dr. Chris Backhouse, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, University of Alberta, 780-492-2920.

David Alton, Director of Business Development, Alberta Cancer Diagnostic Consortium, University of Alberta, 780-492-3202 780-492-4514.

Bev Betkowski, Public Affairs Associate, University of Alberta, 780-492-3808.

IMAGE LICENSE: Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License".

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Nanotube Adhesive Sticks Better Than a Gecko’s Foot

Troy, N.Y., and Akron, Ohio — Mimicking the agile gecko, with its uncanny ability to run up walls and across ceilings, has long been a goal of materials scientists. Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of Akron have taken one sticky step in the right direction, creating synthetic “gecko tape” with four times the sticking power of the real thing.

Nanotube Adhesive Sticks Better Than a Gecko’s Foot, Image courtesy of the University of Akron.
Microfabricated aligned multiwalled carbon nanotube setae and spatulas. (A) Optical picture of gecko foot showing that the setae are arranged in many lobes along the foot. (B) SEM image of natural gecko setae terminating into thousands of smaller spatulas. (E–H) SEM images of synthetic setae of width 50 (E), 100 (F), 250 (G), and 500 (H) µm. (C and D) Side views (C) and higher magnification SEM image (D) of the 100 µm setae. Image courtesy of the University of Akron.

In a paper published in the June 18–22 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers describe a process for making polymer surfaces covered with carbon nanotube hairs. The nanotubes imitate the thousands of microscopic hairs on a gecko’s footpad, which form weak bonds with whatever surface the creature touches, allowing it to “unstick” itself simply by shifting its foot.

For the first time, the team has developed a prototype flexible patch that can stick and unstick repeatedly with properties better than the natural gecko foot. They fashioned their material into an adhesive tape that can be used on a wide variety of surfaces, including Teflon.

Pulickel Ajayan, the Henry Burlage Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Rensselaer, and Lijie Ci, a postdoctoral research associate in Ajayan’s lab, created the material in collaboration with Ali Dhinojwala, professor of polymer science at the University of Akron, and University of Akron graduate students Liehui Ge and Sunny Sethi.

“Several people have tried to use carbon nanotube films and other fibrous structures as high-adhesive surfaces and to mimic gecko feet, but with limited success when it comes to realistic demonstrations of the stickiness and reversibility that one sees in gecko feet,” Ajayan said. “We have shown that the patchy structures from micropatterned nanotubes are essential for this unique engineering feat to work. The nanotubes also need to be the right kind, with the right dimensions and compliance.”

“Geckos inspired us to develop a synthetic gecko tape unlike any you’ll find in a hardware store,” Dhinojwala says. “Synthetic gecko tape uses ‘van der Waals interactions’ — the same interactions that hold liquids and solids together — to stick to a variety of surfaces without using sticky glues.”

The material could have a number of applications, including feet for wall-climbing robots; a dry, reversible adhesive in electronic devices; and outer space, where most adhesives don’t work because of the vacuum.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.

University of Akron Media Contact: David Russ (330) 972-6477

Contact: Amber Cleveland 518-276-2146 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

About the University of Akron, The University of Akron is the public research university for northern Ohio. It is the only public university in Ohio with a science and engineering program ranked in the top five nationally by U.S.News & World Report. Serving 24,000 students, the university offers approximately 300 associate, bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral, and law degree programs and 100 certificate programs at sites in Summit, Wayne, Medina, and Holmes counties. For more information, visit

About Rensselaer, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, founded in 1824, is the nation’s oldest technological university. The university offers bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in engineering, the sciences, information technology, architecture, management, and the humanities and social sciences. Institute programs serve undergraduates, graduate students, and working professionals around the world.

Rensselaer faculty are known for pre-eminence in research conducted in a wide range of fields, with particular emphasis in biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology, and the media arts and technology. The Institute is well known for its success in the transfer of technology from the laboratory to the marketplace so that new discoveries and inventions benefit human life, protect the environment, and strengthen economic development.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Nanoparticle Offers Promise for Treating Glaucoma

UCF Nanoparticle Offers Promise for Treating Glaucoma By Barb Abney

Glaucoma affects millions of people and if left untreated can cause blindness, Photo: Jerry KleinA unique nanoparticle made in a laboratory at the University of Central Florida is proving promising as a drug delivery device for treating glaucoma, an eye disease that can cause blindness and affects millions of people worldwide.
“The nanoparticle can safely get past the blood-brain barrier making it an effective non-toxic tool for drug delivery,” said Sudipta Seal, an engineering professor with appointments in UCF’s Advanced Materials Processing and Analysis Center and the Nanoscience Technology Center.

The findings will be published in an article appearing in the June 28 issue of the Journal of Physical Chemistry C.
Sudipta Seal, Photo: UCF News File PhotoSeal and his colleagues from North Dakota State University note in the article that while barely 1-3 percent of existing glaucoma medicines penetrate into the eye, earlier experiments with nanoparticles have shown not only high penetration rates but also little patient discomfort.
The miniscule size of the nanoparticles makes them less abrasive than some of the complex polymers now used in most eye drops.

Seal and his team created a specialized cerium oxide nanoparticle and bound it with a compound that has been shown to block the activity of an enzyme (hCAII) believed to play a central role in causing glaucoma.

The disease involves abnormally high pressure of the fluid inside the eye, which, if left untreated, can result in damage to the optic nerve and vision loss. High pressure occurs, in part, because of a buildup of carbon dioxide inside the eye, and the compound blocks the enzyme that produces carbon dioxide.

Seal and a team of collaborators including Sanku Mallik, of North Dakota State University, developed the research on using nanoparticles as a delivery mechanism for the compound after supervising a student summer project at UCF. Duke University undergraduate Serge Reshetnikov spent a summer studying nanoscience on UCF’s Orlando campus as part of a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) project funded by the National Science Foundation. Reshetnikov started looking into the possibilities of using nanoparticles as drug delivery tools. Subsequent research with his advisors led to the specific application for glaucoma.

In their paper on the research, which was also supported by the National Science Foundation, Seal and Mallik note the results are “very promising” and that their nanoparticle configuration offers seemingly limitless possibilities as a non-toxic drug delivery tool.

Contact: Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala 407-823-6120 University of Central Florida

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Emulsion with a Round-Trip Ticket

Oil-in-water to water-in-oil and back: double inversion of emulsions using nanoparticles and surfactants

The image from optical microscopy is that of an oil drop in water coated with polystyrene latex particles (diameter 3.2 mm) with surface amine functionalities. Notice the defects in the particle ordering around the drop.  The scale bar is 25 mm. B.P. Binks and A. Desforges (postdoctoral researcher)Oil and water are not miscible. However, it is possible to combine both into an emulsion in which they act as a unit—for example, in creams, body lotion, milk, or mayonnaise. In these substances, one of the two liquids is dispersed as tiny droplets in the other,
which requires an emulsifier and vigorous shaking or stirring.

Whether the oil droplets are suspended in water (oil-in-water emulsion O/W) or the water droplets are suspended in oil (water-in-oil emulsion W/O) depends on various factors. In the journal Angewandte Chemie, a British team from the University of Hull now reports a double inversion of a nanoparticle-containing emulsion: By the successive addition of a surfactant, they were able to convert an O/W emulsion into a W/O emulsion and then back again.

The emulsifier’s job is to make droplet formation easier and to counteract separation. In addition to surfactants (substances contained in detergents and the like), fine solid particles also have a stabilizing effect. Mustard powder has thus long been used to stabilize mayonnaise. Both surfactants and particles aggregate at the phase boundary of the two liquids and keep the droplets from flowing together. Many commercial formulations contain surfactants as well as solid particles.

If the conditions are changed, a phase inversion can occur, converting an O/W into a W/O emulsion, for example, if more and more surfactant is added. This is no great feat. However, Bernard P. Binks and Johnny A. Rodrigues have now achieved something astonishing: a double inversion. Their system initially contains silica nanoparticles and a small quantity of a surfactant with a water-loving (hydrophilic), positively charged head and two nonpolar, water-repellent (hydrophobic) tails. The tiny silica spheres are negatively charged, hydrophilic, and easily wettable by water.

In this state, they stabilize oil drops in water (O/W). If more surfactant is added, a layer of surfactant molecules surrounds each sphere, all with their hydrophobic tails sticking out. The spheres are now covered with a hydrophobic layer and are no longer wettable. They stop repelling each other and begin to aggregate. This causes the emulsion to undergo its first inversion into W/O.

If further surfactant is then added, these additional molecules lodge tail-to-tail with those already surrounding the spheres. This forms a double layer around the spheres, with the positively charged heads of the second surfactant layer now sticking out. The spheres thus once again have a charged, hydrophilic surface and again stabilize oil droplets in water. The emulsion undergoes its second inversion back into O/W.

Contact: Bernie P. Binks 44-148-246-5450 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Study could impact noninvasive treatment of cancer tumors

LSU researchers investigate the effects of nanoparticles on cell freezing

BATON ROUGE – Ram Devireddy, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at LSU, recently co-authored an article with Todd Monroe, assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering, investigating the complex effects of nanoparticles on cell freezing. The report was published in the prestigious journal Nanotechnology.

 A cluster of gold nanoparticles 50 nanometers in diameter created a much larger crater in the ice sample, shown here. The cluster is represented in this image by a small black dot that is actually 100 times the actual size of the nanoparticlesA cluster of gold nanoparticles 50 nanometers in diameter created a much larger crater in the ice sample, shown here.

The cluster is represented in this image by a small black dot that is actually 100 times the actual size of the nanoparticles. photo by: Courtesy of Hugh Richardson, Ohio University

The results of their study – while not what they expected – could end up impacting cancer treatment. Devireddy and Monroe initiated a study to investigate the effects of gold-based nanoparticles, or microscopic particles equal to one-thousandth the thickness of a single strand of human hair, on cell transport and the response of those cells after being frozen. Their hypothesis: nanoparticles would alleviate the damaging effects generally caused by the freezing process.

“Most cells are like bags of water,” Devireddy said. “Ice crystals have sharp edges that tend to poke the cells and break them up, causing damage. That is why, for example, frozen food, when thawed and cooked, tends to be ‘mushier’ that fresh produce.”

The researchers, along with graduate students Sreedhar Thirumala and Julianne Audiffred, used the nanoparticles to replace dimethylsulfoxide, a commonly used cryoprotective agent.

“Cryoprotective agents, or CPAs, have long been used to alleviate freezing injury and to enhance the number of cells that survive the freezing process,” said Thirumala. The drawback is that CPAs can also cause cell death when used in high concentrations and need to be removed from cells immediately after freezing.

Devireddy and Monroe believed that nanoparticles might act as a benign replacement for CPAs. To test this, they added commercially available gold nanoparticles to cells suspended in a culture medium.

However, contrary to their initial hypothesis, Devireddy and Monroe found that the nanoparticles did not significantly change the freezing response of either HeLa cells, which are derived from a specific cervical cancer cell line, or Jurkat cells, cancer cells commonly used in research due to their abnormally rapid growth rate in lab conditions.

While test results showed that the nanoparticles were not as effective in protecting frozen cells as the more traditional CPAs, there was significant damaging interaction between the nanoparticles and both HeLa and Jurkat cells, suggesting the need for more research.

Potential practical applications for such research includes improved cryosurgical procedures, which are non-invasive procedures used to eradicate cancer tumors inside the body by cooling them to extremely low temperatures.

Both Devireddy and Monroe plan to pursue this project, citing their teamwork as a driving factor in the effectiveness of their research and teaching.

“The benefit of having each other to ‘cross-train’ our students also better prepares them for future careers in bioengineering research,” said Monroe. ###

Contact: Ashley Berthelot LSU Media Relations 225-578-3870 Ram Devireddy 225-578-5891 Louisiana State University

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Monday, June 18, 2007

2 qubits in action, new step towards the quantum computer

Caption: Superconducting rings on a chip. Credit: TU Delft, Usage Restrictions: NoneResearchers at Delft University of Technology have succeeded in carrying out calculations with two quantum bits, the building blocks of a possible future quantum computer. The Delft researchers are publishing an article about this important step towards a workable quantum computer in this week’s issue of Nature.
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Quantum computers have superior qualities in comparison to the type of computers currently in use. If they are realised, then quantum computers will be able to carry out tasks that are beyond the abilities of all normal computers.

A quantum computer is based on the amazing properties of quantum systems. In these a quantum bit, also known as a qubit, exists in two states at the same time and the information from two qubits is entangled in a way that has no equivalent whatsoever in the normal world.

It is highly likely that workable quantum computers will need to be produced using existing manufacturing techniques from the chip industry. Working on this basis, scientists at Delft University of Technology are currently studying two types of qubits: one type makes use of tiny superconducting rings, and the other makes use of ‘quantum dots’.

Now for the first time a ‘controlled-NOT’ calculation with two qubits has been realised with the superconducting rings. This is important because it allows any given quantum calculation to be realised. ###

The result was achieved by the PhD student Jelle Plantenberg in the team led by Kees Harmans and Hans Mooij. The research took place within the FOM (Dutch Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter) concentration group for Solid State Quantum Information Processing.

Contact: Frank Nuijens 31-152-784-259 Delft University of Technology

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

electronic growth of quantum alloys aids superconductivity

UT-ORNL professor's discovery leads to $1.2 million hydrogen grant

KNOXVILLE -- A unique discovery being published this week by University of Tennessee Knoxville scientists has led to a $1.2 million grant to help overcome roadblocks facing the wide-scale use of hydrogen as a national energy source.

Dr. Hanno Weitering, Professor/UT-ORNL Joint FacultyHanno Weitering, a professor of physics and joint faculty member between UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, found that by adding small amounts of the element bismuth to an extremely thin film of lead atoms, he could fine-tune the stability and physical properties of the newly made "quantum alloy."

More on this Topic

Computational Quantum Mechanics for Materials Engineers: The EMTO Method and Applications (Engineering Materials and Processes)

Describes new approaches to the modelling of disordered alloys that combine the most efficient quantum-level theories of random alloys with the most sophisticated numerical techniques to establish a theoretical insight into the electronic structure of complex materials

will interest researchers and postgraduate students in materials science and engineering, solid-state physics and applied quantum mechanics.
The research appears in this week's issue of the journal Science.

In this instance, Weitering's experiment revealed that by varying the amount of bismuth in the lead film, he could vary the lead's superconductivity, a highly studied trait of metals that allows them to conduct electricity, usually at very low temperatures, without losing energy.

Weitering and co-authors Zhenyu Zhang, a UT-ORNL research professor, and Jim Thompson, UT professor of physics, call the process "electronic growth" because the formation and properties of the film can be controlled based on the number of free electrons it contains. Lead and bismuth differ only by one electron, so adding bismuth to the mix adds electrons.

The significance of the research comes from the fact that it is extremely difficult to control a physical trait like superconductivity at such a small scale in a precise manner without suppressing or destroying it, according to Weitering.

"You could consider this a proof of principle," said Weitering. "Plus, if we can change physical properties in this manner, it raises the question of whether we could also tune a material's chemical properties."

In fact, that is the question Weitering will address with a $1.2-million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to study how electronic growth might influence the efficiency of hydrogen fuel cells. Instead of mixing bismuth with lead, in this study, Weitering will mix aluminum and/or sodium with magnesium.

Weitering will modify magnesium by adding different amounts of sodium and aluminum to see if doing so makes it easier for hydrogen atoms to travel in and out of an incredibly thin sheet of magnesium. Learning how best to store hydrogen and then easily remove it presents a major hurdle to the use of hydrogen as an energy source.

"Bulk magnesium is a promising storage material but right now, the process only works at high temperatures -- 300 degrees Celsius or so," he said. "We'd like to lower that temperature. We're aiming to show that the chemistry can be much better controlled at a very small scale."

Weitering's work is part of a field known as nanophysics. He deals with materials in incredibly small amounts, on a nearly atom-by-atom basis.
In such small quantities, materials take on a very different set of qualities than they might in a bulk size, opening a number of avenues of study.

While Weitering points out that his findings are not guaranteed to work on bulk levels, he noted that the research sheds critical light on the nature of the materials being studied.

The grant is part of $11.2 million given to universities and national laboratories around the U.S. as part of the DOE's effort to apply science to the challenges of wide-scale hydrogen use.

Weitering's co-principal investigators on the grant are Ward Plummer, a UT-ORNL distinguished professor of physics, and Zhang. Weitering and Zhang both hold chairs of excellence in the UT-ORNL Joint Institute for Advanced Materials, currently led by Plummer.

Weitering pointed to the energy research as a logical area of study as a joint UT-ORNL researcher.

"This is a great way to contribute to the mission of the university and of the lab as joint faculty," he said. ###

Contact: Jay Mayfield 865-974-9409 University of Tennessee at Knoxville

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