Big players in a small world
Improving air quality, delivering more effective cancer treatment and creating better electronics are among the ways UT Arlington's nanotechnology research is enhancing lives
It’s one of the great oddities of scientific study: The smaller the object of thought, the more remarkable the advance in knowledge.
Louis Pasteur, Jonas Salk, Marie Curie—all were giant thinkers whose focus hinged on that which could only be seen with high-powered instrumentation, whether it was bacterial, or viral, or the decay cycle of radium.
Their research changed civilization in very big ways.
The same can be said for The University of Texas at Arlington’s Nanotechnology Research and Teaching Facility, which provides faculty, student and corporate engineers and scientists with the state-of-the-art equipment and interdisciplinary support needed to investigate nanoscale materials.
“Nano” translates roughly from the Greek, meaning a billionth part. It’s another way of saying that thinking small can translate to world-altering advancements in knowledge.
Ponder three nano research examples at UT Arlington.
- Research on nanolubricants by materials science and engineering Professor Pranesh Aswath is on the way to making a refinement in lubricant technology that will extend the life of catalytic converters, with implications for air quality and the cost of vehicular maintenance.
- Bioengineering Associate Professor Liping Tang has several patents involving targeted drugs and continues to make strides in this type of medical treatment. “Target treating” specific parts of the body represents an enormous medical advance.
- The magnetics research of physics Associate Professor Ping Liu shows the potential to create composite magnetic devices of precise characteristics critical for thousands of electronic applications (but also difficult to achieve in an affordable and mass-produced way when such devices have to be extraordinarily small).
Nanolubricants and tribology: Improving the environment
Pranesh Aswath and longtime collaborator Ron Elsenbaumer are specialists in “tribology,” a branch of science and technology concerned with interacting surfaces, such as in an automobile engine. Nanotribologists devote themselves to uncovering the fundamental chemical and physical dramas that underlie good and bad lubrication, friction and wear. They rely on new tools like friction-force microscopes that can examine surfaces down to the molecular level.
Drs. Aswath and Elsenbaumer, the latter the UT Arlington vice president for research, are particularly interested in the phosphorus component of lubricants (zinc dialkyl dithiophosphate, or ZDDP) that, while increasing lubrication, also reduces the effectiveness and life cycle of catalytic converters.
"The industry is looking for ways to ultimately eliminate ZDDP in motor oil in order to help meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requirements,” Aswath said.
Aswath and Elsenbaumer have been funded by the Platinum Research Organization since 1999 and have also had support from the state of Texas as part of a technology development and transfer grant. The team also collaborates with General Motors Corp. and many oil and additive companies such as Infineum and Chevron Oronite.
“We’re very close to commercial application as a result of our work of the last five years,” Elsenbaumer said. “Basically our research aims to replace a component in motor oil lubricants that has a detrimental effect on the functioning of catalytic converters and ultimately on air quality and pollution.”
Platinum Research Organization CEO John Jaeger is clearly excited. He notes that a major automaker has begun testing a catalyzed motor oil developed by UT Arlington scientists and his organization.
“In tests conducted at The University of Texas at Arlington, PRO’s catalyzed formulation added to motor oil allowed a reduction of the phosphorus levels from ZDDP while enhancing ZDDP’s wear protection ability,” Jaeger said in an announcement.
Translation: Expect an improvement in air quality because of longer catalytic converter life, thanks to the efforts of Aswath and Elsenbaumer.
Targeted drugs: Making cancer more manageable
Liping Tang wants to make drugs so biologically specific that they will collect within certain types of cells.
“Every cell has receptors to specific proteins or other components of its biological makeup,” he notes. “When we identify those receptors, it should be possible in many cases to put the appropriate medication where it’s needed the most.”
Consider, for example, retinal diseases. Even with direct injections in the eye, it’s difficult for enough of the drug to accumulate in the retinal area to obtain the desired effect. Treatment can take months.
Chemotherapy drugs attack not only the cancer but the rest of the body. Targeted drugs would concentrate in the cancerous areas, producing greater efficiency of treatment and fewer side effects—an important outcome for managing the disease.
“We’re trying to make drugs that intersect specifically with certain types of cells,” Dr. Tang says. “We can use different kinds of medication depending on what the problem is.”
Taken to its logical conclusion, the process will widen the spectrum of drug possibilities by reducing side effects.
Tang’s research has more focus on the biological spectrum of nanoparticles. It’s a multidisciplinary approach involving bioengineering, chemistry and physics faculty and students and collaboration with the University of North Texas and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and with such companies as Alcon.
In the last year alone, the research has resulted in three patents for treatment processes, and other patents may be coming.
“Lots of people are working in this research area, but not so many so far are taking advantage of the natural effects of the biological spectrum. So far we’ve been pretty lucky,” Tang says modestly.
Though this much is evident: It’s cutting-edge science, not luck.
Composite magnets: Smaller, stronger, better and revolutionary
The simple magnet isn’t all that simple, particularly when magnets with specific properties are required for highly complex, extremely small devices. Creating those magnets has become a unique specialization of nanoscience.
“The applications for magnets are everywhere—for example, all motors and generators utilize magnets,” Ping Liu says. “So do computers, cellphones, everywhere. The average family car requires from 50 to 100 magnets.”
Dr. Liu is a world authority on magnetics and its nano applications, and to his knowledge the UT Arlington program is the only one focusing on design of magnets from nanocomposite materials.
Composite magnets consist of more than one component.
“The composite will take advantage of the full range of substance and magnet characteristics,” Liu explained. “Traditional magnets have one face; now we have two faces. By utilizing mixed composites, we have more sophisticated magnets with precise characteristics. You could think of it as being able to take advantage of both hard faces and soft faces of magnets.”
In this context, “hard” defines the level of unchanging magnetism, and “soft” defines materials with high levels of induced magnetism. Liu utilizes a sophisticated, high-temperature batching that produces micromagnets of consistent, reliable quality without the ongoing problem in magnetics technology called “grain growth”—growth of one component at the expense of the other.
The research is supported by two U.S. Department of Defense grants, and commercial applications are likely in aerospace and robotics.
Because of the advanced techniques involved, the magnets theoretically can be twice as strong as those created in other applications—and very small.
“Recently we succeeded in producing the world’s smallest strong permanent magnets—magnets from 4 to 16 nanometers with controllable size and shape,” Liu said. “These particle magnets (nano-composite magnets) are not available from other places and should find advanced applications in industries.”
Elsenbaumer is not bashful in lauding the nanotechnology research, of which the preceding examples are only three. Nor is he reluctant to proclaim his expectations.
“This nanotechnology research,” he says simply, “is just one way that UT Arlington is changing the world.”
Targeted drugs research
— O.K. Carter