Big plans for small science


Nanotechnology will change the way we live and how we communicate – and Irish research is leading the way, writes Science Editor DICK AHLSTROM

HOW SMALL is small? A grain of sand is tiny compared to us but it is huge compared to the thickness of a sheet of paper. And that same paper thickness, or the diameter of a human hair, as small as it is, is still monstrous compared to a bacterium.

Yet all of these things are colossal compared to the size of things in the strange world of nanotechnology research. Scientists are working on objects that are measured in billionths of a metre across or 1/1,000,000,000 to portray it as a fraction.

Researchers around the world are scrambling to make advances in nanotechnology – the materials being developed in labs can be used in so many ways, from medical diagnostics to mobile phones, new ways to fight cancer to flexible electronics.

Ireland is doing very well in this field, currently ranked eighth of 162 countries in materials science by Thomson Reuters, which monitors references to important scientific papers. This puts us ahead of Japan, France, Canada and Australia in the nanotech area.

There are two major nano centres here, the Tyndall National Institute at UCC and the Crann research centre, mainly based at Trinity but with researchers also based in Cork.

Our reputation in the field must certainly proceed us given these centres have attracted royal visitors. Tomorrow, Queen Elizabeth will visit Tyndall in Cork and last month, Prince Albert of Monaco visited Trinity to hear about Crann’s work. Tyndall has some 460 staff and Crann has more than 250, all of them committed to conducting research into various areas of nanotechnology.

The work is a mix of fundamental research and research into how the technology can be used, says Mary Colclough, communications and education manager at Crann.

“It brings together expertise from many disciplines to study nanotechnology to see how it can be used in new devices, and also to achieve a greater understanding about these materials,” she says.

Tyndall’s chief executive, Prof Roger Whatmore, puts it even more directly: “Our object is to get this technology out to the market.”

Nanotechnology research looks set to change the way we live and how we communicate, and yet it is research that can move to market quickly. “Society needs things, for example mobiles, internet television, broadband and high capacity communications, to get more data out to devices,” Whatmore says.

But society also wants better healthcare, less invasive treatments, faster localised diagnostics and even “nano needles”, used for painless injections.

Scientists are pursuing nano research to help deliver these advances. “Nanotechnology is the term we use to describe making small things,” Whatmore says. “When you start to work on a very small scale, interesting things happen. It is the special properties that you obtain by looking in the nanotechnology range.”

BUT HOW ARE WE TOunderstand this impossibly small range? Who can get a sense of what a billionth of a metre is like?

One way is to make comparisons using our own perspective. Try to imagine how big the sun is, an object that is about 1.4 billion metres across. It is huge, but we can grasp an inkling of its size. Now try to scale back in the other direction, moving past smaller and smaller objects until you get the same “distance”, down to one billionth of a metre. A sugar molecule is about one nanometre or a billionth of a metre long.

The scientists working in this field talk about objects that are nanometres across.

But why would you want to work at such tiny scales? Tyndall researcher Prof J P Colinge works in the field. He developed a unique kind of transistor, the device that lies at the heart of all modern electronics.

The goal in electronics is to make smaller and smaller transistors, giving the device more computing power while using less electricity and running faster. His “junctionless transistors”, when announced last year, were 1,000 nanometres across but now he has reduced them almost 50-fold.

Recent modelling has shown he will be able to make transistors that are just three nanometres across. And needless to say he has computer chip manufacturers, including Intel, knocking on his door.

Nanotechnology is also having an impact in healthcare. Dr Ed Lavelle is director of research in Trinity’s school of biochemistry and immunology and he is using nanoparticles from Crann to help make vaccines work better.

Vaccines for mumps and measles protect against disease by causing the body’s immune system to make antibodies against these illnesses. Usually, vaccines include a substance called an “adjuvant” that boosts the immune response and makes the whole thing work better.Lavelle is studying the use of nanoparticles as adjuvants against difficult diseases such as TB, malaria and HIV. Size seems to make a difference to the immune response, so he is testing particles from 30 to 300 nanometres, seeing which combination of vaccine and nano-adjuvant gives the best response.