Researchers at the University of Texas, Austin have done and are doing what many once thought was an impossibility. Any headline you’re likely to read in connection with their work will no doubt introduce you to the term, “nanotweezers.” It’s an innovative technology on the nanoscale that deals with nanoparticles using light to ultimately control biological matter at the cellular level. It’s an unthinkable concept that many now expect to be the future of several industries and sectors including the medical nanotech space in terms of monitoring health.
Yuebing Zheng is a professor of mechanical engineering at UT Austin, and he engineered the new technology in order to create a new means of manipulating objects at the nanoscale based on research he and his team conducted a few years back at the Cockrell School of Engineering. Their intention is to pioneer new understandings of nanophotonics advancements via optothermoelectric nanotweezers. “Until now, we simply did not know how to manipulate nanoparticles using optical heating,” Zheng explains. “With our nanotweezers, we can not only control particles at the nanoscale, we can also analyze the particles and control the coupling in-situ.”
Brian Korgel was a collaborator on the project; he’s a chemical engineering professor at UT Austin who was elected to the National Academy of Engineering just this year for his own groundbreaking research with nanowires and nanocrystals. The project brought Zheng and Korgel together for this innovative, nanophotonics breakthrough, greatly enhancing the study of light-matter interaction at the nanoscale. “This project was really interesting for me,” Korgel says. “It was led by a group in mechanical engineering who had discovered a way to manipulate individual nanoparticles and nanowires.”
Korgel adds that Zheng’s team consisted of masters of “building the photonics machines but not [of] making the materials to use for the experiments. So, my group developed the synthesis of the nanowires used in the study. It was a great collaboration.” It’s being hailed as a coming together of great minds translating to proportionately innovative outcomes, and those great minds included those of Ernst-Ludwig Florin, a UT physics professor at the Center for Nonlinear Dynamics, and Emanuel Lissek, a graduate student under Florin. They contributed extra expertise by way of precision measurements through illustrations of nanotweezer use.
The research proved to be a product of some of the best minds in nanochemistry, nanophotonics, and nanophysics, and they paved the way to legitimately manipulating and analyzing nanoparticles on a new level. The nanotweezers were just a critical tool toward their achievement, used to manipulate light on a nanoscale in the exact same way normal tweezers are used to manipulate, say, an eyelash. These nanotweezers are used with semiconductors, metal in general, dielectric nanostructures and polymer among other things. Thus far, they’ve been used to isolate silicon nanospheres, polystyrene beads, silica beads, silicon nanowires, metal nanostructures and germanium nanowires.
“Optimization of the current system to make it bio-compatible is the next step of our project,” Zheng explains. “We expect to use our tweezers to manipulate biological cells and molecules at single-molecule resolution, to control drug release and to study the cell-cell interaction. The manipulation and analysis of biological objects will open a new door to early disease diagnosis and the discovery of nanomedicine.” If it’s not clear just from that explanation, this line of thinking is almost certain to significantly inform what’s taught in future science textbooks at virtually all grade levels as well as the collegiate level.
Some suspect that this could even lead to the kind of commercialization that a smartphone app might be designed in coordination with the use of these tweezers. At least, “That’s what we hope,” Zheng says. “We also see great opportunities in outreach education, perhaps for students who want to see what a cell really looks like.” Think about the figures you see in the average biology textbook when a chapter is breaking down the layout or functions of a cell. They often show either a computer-generated cartoon of sorts. This might be a thing of the past. “In addition, it could be used to assess how healthy one’s immune system is functioning. It has the potential to be an important mobile diagnostic tool, giving people more autonomy over their own healthcare.”
Zheng is, in fact, pretty confident that this tech will see that kind of commercialization, and he literally speculates that a smartphone app would be adapted in such a way that makes nanotweezers part of the phone’s function for nano-Swiss army knife use or something akin to that. It couldn’t have been realized without all the bright minds that were brought together for collaboration, though. That much is owed to the Army Research Office, the Beckman Young Investigator Program, the NASA Early Career Faculty Award, the Robert A. Welch Foundation, the National Institute of General Medicine Sciences of the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.
[researchpaper 리서치페이퍼= Cedric Dent 기자]