Nanotechnology Revolution -- Powerful Tool Will Screen Materials That Have Never Existed Before On Earth

Researchers at Northwestern University claim that they will soon be able to rapidly test millions -- perhaps even billions -- of different nanoparticles in order to identify the best particle for a specific use, reports Phys.

Nanomaterials refers to materials of which a single unit is sized between 1 and 1000 nanometres (10−9 meter), in at least one dimension. Materials with structure at the nanoscale often have unique mechanical, optical or electronic properties.

"When materials are miniaturized, their properties—optical, structural, electrical, mechanical and chemical—change, offering new possibilities."
Use of nanomaterials is set to revolutionize fields including pharmaceuticals, electronics and some areas of medicine and engineering. Materials can be developed with the exact properties to optimize the process/application in question, whether it involves catalysts, biodiagnostic labels, pharmaceuticals or electronic devices.

Researchers are faced with the following question: what nanoparticle size and composition are best for a given application? Phys reports that this optimization question has been difficult or at least time-consuming to solve, until now.

Researchers can now use a "combinatorial library" of available/buildable nanoparticles. The creation of the tool has drawn comparisons with the development of the gene chip and the mapping of the human genome.

Northwestern's Chad A. Mirkin told reporters that screening all potentially useful nanoparticles would have taken "several lifetimes" without the tool. Now researchers will be able to "pick a winner" much more efficiently.

"As scientists, we've only just begun to investigate what materials can be made on the . Screening a million potentially useful nanoparticles, for example, could take several lifetimes. Once optimized, our tool will enable researchers to pick the winner much faster than conventional methods. We have the ultimate discovery tool."

Mirkin and his colleagues described the combinatorial library in a paper published on June 24 by the journal Science.

How does the tool work? The nanoparticle libraries are really surfaces covered with systematically-varied structures encoded at specific sites.

Mirkin told reporters that comparison with the gene chip can tell you a lot. A gene chip helps researchers study the expression levels of thousands of different genes and assess the content. The chip runs through thousands of different spots of DNA. Thousands of reactions can be done simultaneously, providing results in just a few hours.

Similarly, Mirkin's team will be able to use the nanoparticle libraries to rapidly make and screen millions to billions of nanoparticles of different compositions and sizes, and quickly assess their suitability for different applications.

Particle size and composition have become "tunable parameters," said Mirkin. The researcher even said that the tool will open a completely new field of inquiry -- nanocombinatorics -- and revolutionize the burgeoning field of nanotechnology.

"The ability to make libraries of nanoparticles will open a new field of nanocombinatorics, where size—on a scale that matters—and composition become tunable parameters. This is a powerful approach to discovery science."
Mirkin's co-author Vinayak P. Dravid, from the McCormick School of Engineering, encouraged people to think of the tool as a broad new palette of "colors" that nanomaterials builders will be able to pick from, reports Science Daily.

When pictured using high-powered imaging techniques, the nanoparticles indeed appear as a colorful array.

"I liken our combinatorial nanopatterning approach to providing a broad palette of bold colors to an artist who previously had been working with a handful of dull and pale black, white and grey pastels."
Mirkin, Dravid and co started with five metallic elements—gold, silver, cobalt, copper and nickel— and developed an array of unique structures by varying every elemental combination.
"Some of the compositions can be found in nature, but more than half of them have never existed before on Earth."
Technavio reports that the nanotechnology and nanomaterial sectors are experiencing extraordinary growth. The so-called Internet of Nano Things (IoNT) is slated to grow "at a significant CAGR of over 24% during the forecast period [2016 -- 2020]."
"The growing demand for the miniaturization of electronics products coupled with increasing consumer demand for smaller and powerful devices at affordable prices has to resulted in the increasing adoption of nanotechnology among industries."
[Image via Shutterstock]