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Trevor Douglas
   Associate chemistry professor Trevor Douglas says nanotechnology
   is not pie in the sky. (Stephen Hunts photo)

Scientists expect big things from tiny technology

By Evelyn Boswell

Every scientist seems to have a dream that drives his or her research. Some in Montana want to save Montana's pallid sturgeon, while others battle noxious weeds and cancer. Some long for better explanations for the Earth's past. Others try to predict the future of the universe.

What about those who want to make a new generation of materials that will be incorporated into everyday lives in much the same way that plastic and other materials were?

In fields like chemistry and physics, many researchers have dreamed of finding ultra-small containers to carry out special missions. Like pots in a kitchen or beakers in a laboratory, the containers would have lids and would hold anything the chemists poured into them. Maybe they'd carry medicine and slip through the body until they reached a tumor. Maybe they'd hold magnetic material to give computers more memory or televison screens more resolution.

The applications seemed limitless, but the process remained an enigma until relatively recently.

Chemists tried making the containers one molecule at a time, but it wasn't working. Then they turned to nature and found the inspiration and tools they needed.

"It's a scientific and industrial revolution," Yves Idzerda said about the discovery that protein viruses could be emptied and turned into ultra-miniature containers. Idzerda is an associate professor of physics at Montana State University-Bozeman.

The process of using these all-purpose containers is called nanotechnology, and the containers are normally called nanomaterials. The containers are so small that researchers talk about them being 1,000 times less than the width of a hair. Their chemical, physical and mechanical properties are so unique that scientists say they can transform everything from computer memory, satellites and high definition TV to artificial hips and the treatment of tumors. Some have said nanomaterials could eventually levitate trains and transmission lines, thus preserving energy.

"A lot of nanotechnology is a little bit of hype," Idzerda admitted.

Scientists might not agree on every possible application, but they do agree that nanotechnology has marvelous potential.

"I really think nanoscience, nanotechnology, is a revolution," said Trevor Douglas, associate professor of chemistry at MSU. "It's going to fundamentally change technology."

Calling nanotechnology a huge wave of the future, Douglas said MSU is poised to become a leader in the field. The university is already creating nanomaterials, and it received permission in July to form the Center for Bio-Inspired Nanomaterials (CBIN). The virtual center will blend the efforts of five MSU researchers, who are already working on various aspects of nanotechnology, and other scientists who may join them. The original CBIN researchers are Douglas, David Singel and Mary Cloninger in chemistry, Idzerda in physics, and Mark Young in plant sciences and plant pathology.

"What we have is a niche, an approach thats totally unique," Douglas said. "There are other institutions in the world that are doing this with individual PIs (Principal Investigators) working on protein-based nanomaterials, but we have a group collaboration thats evolved and multidisciplinary."

"An incredibly powerful group" because of shared interests, focus and significant amounts of funding, the nanomaterial researchers work in areas that fit well together, Douglas noted. Douglas and Young developed the ability to make tiny protein cages in large batches and redesign them for specific purposes. Idzerda describes the physical properties of the magnetic materials entrapped inside those containers. Singel studies the dynamics of nanomaterials and how they change over time. Cloninger works on an organic system to tie the nanoparticles into well-defined structures.

"Ultimately, once they are all categorized and done, we will hand them off to a company," Douglas said of the protein containers. "We will make these things, know everything about them and then say, "This will be material you will want to incorporate into your device."

Panasonic is one company that is already funding part of MSU's nanotechnology work.

"They are interested in using these kinds of materials for a tremendous leap in magnetic storage capability (of computers)," Douglas explained.

MSU's new center will concentrate on two areas of application. One will involve magnetic materials. That's an area funded through a National Science Foundation (NSF) program called NIRT for Nanotechnology Interdisciplinary Research Team. The other application will focus on the delivery of medication to specific parts of the body. That area is largely funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The CBIN will concentrate on bio-inspired materials because the university already has a number of patents in that area, and MSU is internationally known for placing materials inside protein cages, Idzerda said.

Brewing Nanomaterials

So how do scientists make these tiny containers?

MSU researchers start by cloning a protein gene into either a bacteria or yeast, depending on the type of container they want, Douglas said. Then they let the bacteria or yeast grow through fermentation. Yeast, in particular, produces a large batch of containers.

After fermentation, the researchers start a process that releases and purifies the protein. The scientists wind up with a clear solution that contains invisible protein cages.

"You can't see them. This is almost an act of faith that they are there," Douglas commented.

The researchers then examine the solution under a microscope to see if the protein containers are intact. They go on to mineralize the solution and load the containers with a drug or magnetic material. Interested companies could take MSU's product from there and produce it on a scale that suits their purposes.

"This is not pie in the sky," Douglas said. "Companies are putting substantial amounts of money into this."

Nanotechnology holds promise for companies, MSU faculty, students, and Montana alike, according to the university representatives who asked the Montana Board of Regents to approve the CBIN. Not only will researchers grow in their understanding of nanomaterials and their application, but the CBIN will train undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and visiting scholars.

"It is expected that establishment of the CBIN will serve as a scholarly and industrial research center for the study of bio-inspired materials, which will drive creation of an environmentally clean industry for Montana, and will generate sustained economic development for the Greater Yellowstone Region," the presenters continued.

In other words, dreams may come true.

Life on Ice | Big things from tiny technology | Avalanche Research | Searching Through Hell
Genetics are key to those amber waves of grain | From the bone beds and back
Finding hope in hard times | Group rethinks radar with lasers and crystals | Foreword | Home
Student passion, purpose create "Way of the Warrior"
Chemistry sounded good until the sinus infections
Research Notes | Faculty and Student Awards | Research Expenditures for Fiscal Year 2003

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