Think small

There’s something odd about the very small: weird physics and some very big money. Bette Flagler meets the New Zealanders making giant strides at a nano scale.

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There’s something odd about the very small: weird physics and some very big money. Bette Flagler meets the New Zealanders making giant strides at a nano scale

Tracy Thompson and Mary Gallagher have started a tradition of hosting hemisphere-adjusted Thanksgiving dinners. Aside from being held on a Saturday in May instead of a Thursday in November, the meals are true to gluttonous form with stuffed turkey, cranberry sauce, green beans, pecan pie and the chance for all gathered around the heaving table to give thanks for the bounties of their new land.

The couple, who came to Palmerston North from San Francisco’s Silicon Valley in 2007, may soon be thankful for big opportunities provided by a tiny product.

Back in the Golden State, the tall, garrulous Thompson had leading roles in seven medical diagnostic startups including one that was sold to Johnson & Johnson, one that was sold to Roche and another that was listed on the NASDAQ. He was working in mergers and acquisitions for Agilent Technologies (a Hewlett-Packard spin-off) when he was offered a biotechnology commercialisation role at Crop & Food Research (now Plant & Food Research).

But once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur, and Thompson was intrigued when he spotted a struggling Massey University startup called Polybatics. Launched in 2005, the company made an initial splash with its platform of applications but faced what Thompson describes as a typical problem: those involved with the company knew the technology had value but didn’t know what to do with it or where to focus their energy.

“Imagine a technology,” says Thompson, “that can prevent or cure disease, make fuel production cheaper or clean up a river. Those are the kind of things that Polybatics can do.”

Welcome to the world of nanotechnology, where claims and jargon run thick and deep. Nanotechnology—and the nanoscience behind it—is based on the very, very small. Just as it’s hard to get your head around how much money a trillion dollars really is, finding a meaningful description of nano is a bit tricky. To most of us, the scientific definition of 10-9 metres means nothing; common comparisons such as a piece of paper being about 100,000 nanometres thick and a human hair about 80,000 nanometres thick at least get us thinking in the right direction. And as for the trillion dollars, that’s what some are predicting nanotechnology products may be worth in the US alone by 2015.

Nanoscience revolves around the study, manipulation and control of material at the atomic level; nano research worldwide is hot in medicine, defence, food, textiles, electronics, ICT and manufacturing. While most of the basic nanoscience research in New Zealand is in electronics, Polybatics has developed bionanoparticles that can be used in medical diagnosis, monoclonal antibody production and synthetic virus development for vaccine production. On top of that, the company claims that it’s a greener technology—its products come from biological beginnings and can, at the end of their usefulness, be biologically degraded.

The science goes something like this: when bacteria such as E coli are stressed, enzymes within the bacteria produce tiny biopolyester beads as a metabolic by-product. Polybatics genetically manipulates the bacteria so that beads—which are on the nanometre scale—are produced by a particular kind of enzyme to which specific proteins can fuse.

When matter gets down to nano size, things behave differently. The way they work at the nanoscale contradict what most people, including scientists, take for granted

Need an example? At-home pregnancy test kits contain tiny coloured beads that have antibodies bound to them that are specific for human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG)—a hormone created by the placenta in early pregnancy. When urine that contains hCG is added to the test kit, the colour is ‘turned on’. But current test kits contain polystytrene beads that are expensive to make, both financially and environmentally. The functional proteins on bionanoparticles, on the other hand, are made by engineered micro-organisms in a single—and much less expensive—step.

“The first product we intend to market is Protein A,” says Thompson. “Protein A is used in monoclonal antibody production and protein purification—a $2 billion-per-year market.” Protein A from Polybatics, he says, will not only shorten processing times because of the efficiency brought by its biological production, but will save money: Protein A currently sells for US$1,500 per gram when purchased in research quantities. Using the Polybatics technology, he says, a gram of Protein A could be produced for less than US$20.

Polybatics isn’t the only New Zealand company interested in medical diagnostics. Izon produces a nanopore that has the potential to identify and measure viruses. During April last year—when swine flu was first hitting the headlines—Izon’s Hans van der Voorn was doing a roadshow in Australia. Among other stops, he visited CSL, one of the world’s largest influenza vaccine manufacturers, which is now considering using it in its virus vaccination research.

Founded in 2005 (then called Australo), Izon’s nanopores measure very small particles on an individual basis. The nanopores, which are created by stretching polyurethane and puncturing it to a certain size with a very sharp tungsten probe, are flexible: van der Voorn believes Izon’s to be the only commercially available nanopore that can open and close, providing measurements of multiple characteristics of very small particles.

At first glance, all things nano seem removed from the real world. But nanoparticles do, in fact, exist in our day-to-day lives. No one knows for sure how many consumer goods have them, but the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars keeps a list of manufacturer-designated products. To date, there are over 800 entries, produced by over 450 companies representing 21 countries.

The three New Zealand companies on the inventory together list only four products, but represent the breadth of nanotechnology’s reach from Orca’s PFlex full wetsuit (“the fastest wetsuit available”) to Nano FuelSaver’s nano-impregnated tube that makes “your driving experience extraordinary” by accomplishing such feats as purifying fuel, enhancing combustion, increasing horsepower and torque, improving fuel economy, reducing engine vibration and cutting down fuel consumption. And then there’s Skylight Natural Health, which markets colloidal silver liquid and colloidal silver cream that “supports the body's immune system and natural defences, for natural healing”.

What’s so great about being small? At the nanoscale, the focus isn’t on a piece of something as much as on an atom of something—and when matter gets down to that size, things behave differently than they do at human scale. Part of this is due to the increased surface area that comes from breaking something into many pieces, but most of the difference is simply due to the chemical and mechanical properties that things have at the molecular level.

“You can’t assume that what you know at the large scale is going to apply at the small scale,” says Richard Haverkamp, professor of nanotechnology at Massey University. With his office walls lined with Filemaster storage boxes and scientific journals, soft-spoken Haverkamp trained as a chemist and originally studied the chemical reactions that take place on the surface of solids. He realised, he says, that the important part of a solid is usually only a few layers of atoms on the surface, around a nanometer thick.

Nano silver is poisonous and we just don’t know the effects of these products on people or the environment. We’re not even sure what the right questions are to ask

“I also realised that much of the thermodynamics I had been taught as an undergraduate does not apply to very small objects. I saw that as you enter the world of nanometre-scale objects, much of the traditional knowledge of the properties of materials has to be re-evaluated. Melting points, boiling points, heats of reaction, whether a reaction can actually take place, how electrical charge is transferred: all these are normally different at the nanoscale to at the macroscale.”

Haverkamp was fascinated. Maybe, he says, because the way things worked at the nanoscale contradicted what most people, including scientists, took for granted. Haverkamp’s work includes developing methods for stretching single molecules and then measuring the characteristics of those molecules. He’s particularly interested in fibrous protein molecules like collagen.

With an atomic force microscope, he says, you can grab a single molecule of something and squeeze, pull, stretch and poke it. “We can measure one molecule—or a strand of one molecule—and find out how molecules interact with each other. From that we can predict … and understand … how they interact on a larger scale.”

Clearly enthusiastic about his work, it’s hard to get a word in. He senses this. “It seems silly to get such a high from doing science,” he apologises, “but it’s jolly interesting to see what’s going on.”

Haverkamp is currently working on a project to determine how various chemical processing techniques affect sheep leather. One garment manufacturer may require a certain type of leather while another wants something else. By examining what happens at the nanoscale level when leather is exposed to different chemicals, processes can be modified to meet those demands. “If you can understand what caused the property to change,” he says, “you’ve got more of a chance to change that property further or by different—or better—means.”

Kate McGrath, an associate professor at Victoria University, also works with biologically-based materials. Instead of sheepskin, she’s using nanoscience to research sea urchins and paua shells.

“There are two main reasons why we’re doing this,” she says. “One is from a biomedical point of view, to generate materials that can be used in the human body as implant materials. The other is that the physical or mechanical characteristics of biominerals are vastly superior to any synthetic analogue that we can create at the moment.”

For example, she says, paua shells and talcum powder are effectively the same material but the way in which the calcium carbonate is deposited by the paua shell results in it being about 3,000 times the strength of its geologic cousin. “That’s because of the inherent strength the paua has imposed on the calcium carbonate during its construction.”

Figuring out how nature does things at the nanoscale is the first step in developing materials that may have superior physical and mechanical characteristics.

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Nanotechnology is used in everything from paint to high-tech sport, including the wetsuit that Orca claims is the fastest available

The late Alan MacDiarmid, New Zealand’s third Nobel Laureate, was a pioneer of nanotechnology and lends his name to the MacDiarmid Institute of Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, one of New Zealand’s Centres of Research Excellence. Researchers, including McGrath, are located throughout New Zealand and are investigators with the Institute. So is Simon Brown, an associate professor at Canterbury University.

Until earlier this year, in addition to Brown’s academic appointment, he headed New Zealand’s first nanotech company, Nano Cluster Devices. Launched in 2004, it raised roughly $3 million but had a one-way flow of capital and recently met its demise. In the research lab, Brown continues his work on developing techniques for the assembly of nanoparticles into electronic devices and making very, very small wires. Practical applications of his work will likely be on transistors, silicone chips, sensors for different types of gases and medical diagnostic equipment.

Outside the lab, Brown is passionate about front-footing the challenges of nanoscience. “It’s clear that nanotechnology isn’t a single technology, it includes everything ranging from new silicone chips to biomedical implants to new kinds of diagnostics in medicine to sunscreens. You name it, there’s nanostuff in it. It’s bewildering.”

And yet, he says, we know very little about the properties of the nanomaterials that are going into the current generation of consumer products. “There is some real concern, I think, about what the environmental or health impacts of those nanomaterials and particles are going to be.”

Silver nanoparticles legitimately take a lot of the nano heat. At the nano level, silver has antimicrobial properties and has been used in everything from wound dressings to baby wipes to socks that prevent athlete’s foot. One of the more contentious applications, says Brown, is the use of silver nanoparticles as an antimicrobial agent in food packaging.

“There’s no argument about it,” says Brown, “nano silver is poisonous and we just don’t know the effects of long-term usage of any of these products, either on the people using them or the environment. One of the big issues is the accumulation of these antimicrobials in, for example, sewage ponds—is that going to stop the sewage treatment plants working? When people take the sludge from the ponds and distribute it on fields as fertiliser are those nanoparticles going to be taken up in crops? There are huge numbers of unknowns and we’re at the stage where we’re not even sure what the right questions are to ask. We don’t have measurement methodologies …”

That’s where the conundrum of nanoscience begins to come full circle. Not only did Izon’s van der Voorn visit organisations interested in using the nanopores for identification and measurement of viruses, he also met with CSIRO (Australia’s national science agency) about using its nanopores to measure silver and other nanoparticles in groundwater and soil. Currently, Izon is involved with over 20 research projects around the world; van der Voorn expects the company to be cashflow-positive this year.

The challenge for business is to be as clever as the technology it’s trying to sell. Karen Cronin, a social scientist at Crown Research Institute ESR, is interested in communication around emerging technologies. She is involved in a project with fellow CRI Plant & Food Research to help think through the issues that might be raised by future work in areas such as nanotechnology.

“[Plant & Food] is considering some of the research directions they might go in,” says Cronin. “They are very aware that some technology options might be controversial and other aspects might not attract any attention. They [want] to be a bit more strategic about informing themselves about the issues and getting a reading on the social context, consumer preference and market context for their work before they’d make major commitments of investment. As social scientists, it’s exactly the recommendation we’ve been making—to engage with people much earlier.”

“One of the things that is 100-percent clear,” says Brown, “is that you can’t do the science or the business in isolation from the social, ethical, societal, health and environmental [aspects]. There’s absolutely no point in a business developing a product that turns out to be toxic. Equally, there’s no point developing a product that ultimately turns people off. If you get that ‘ewww, ick’ response from people, they’re not going to buy it. People need to be more aware of these kinds of issues rather than just plowing on developing things that are ultimately going to be a waste of time.”

It’s really about strategic business planning, says Cronin. On the bid her group prepared for the Plant & Food project, they included a strong business strategy theme, emphasising market and social intelligence to say what can be understood about the operating environment and how that can be used for thinking through technology and business planning choices.

It’s a logical approach, but even still, not all of nanotechnology or nanoscience is going to end up in the consumer’s hands or in the air we breathe.

“The public thinks you’ll get a tin of nanotechnology and you’ll add it to things,” says Massey’s Haverkamp. “For me, some of nanotechnology is like that, but mostly, it’s a way of looking at and understanding the world.”