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Wanted: Nimble Nanomaterials

Wanted: Nimble Nanomaterials

University at Buffalo-SUNY

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Of all the casualties of the 2008 recession, few are more serious than the evaporation of federal support for scientific research. Impatience in Washington has shifted what little federal dollars are available to short-term projects, whose benefits can be seen in the first year or so, at the expense of more ambitious work whose results are years or even decades away.

The creation and manipulation of nanomaterials falls into that second category. But though the materials involved in this exciting new field may be minute, the possible gains are immense. Researchers at the University at Buffalo (UB), State University of New York (SUNY), consider nanomaterial synthesis vital, and have not let the recession slow them down.

UB has proven nimble in the face of economic adversity, taking advantage of the recently-signed NYSUNY 2020 legislation, a statewide initiative designed to reinvigorate scientific research in the SUNY system. The initiative, inaugurated in 2011, will allow UB to hire 300 new faculty members, building on a reputation as a high-profile destination for great scientific minds at a time when other institutions are being forced to cut costs and lay off staff.

"New York State's universities are the jewel of our state's educational system, and with this bill the SUNY system will now be perfectly positioned to become the engine of economic growth across the state," Governor Cuomo said, upon signing the legislation. "The $140 million in new capital funding will build these schools into America's leading institutions of research and innovation, while also creating jobs for New Yorkers and improving our state's economic competitiveness." In Buffalo, some of the most striking innovation is coming at the microscopic level, as the Institute for Lasers, Photonics and Biophotonics, led by Paras N. Prasad, makes unprecedented advances into the fabrication and manipulation of nanomaterials.

"The techniques and big data approaches we are using were pioneered in the field of bioinformatics, but also have extraordinary promise in the exploration of advanced materials."

Prasad is an expert in photonics—the study and development of new technologies based upon manipulation of light—and his latest endeavor applies that experience to the construction of remarkable nanostructures for applications in alternative energy, healthcare, and sensor technology.

Prasad and colleagues are attempting to fabricate nanocomposites—microscopic structures made up of organic and inorganic materials. Such structures are naturally occurring—consider mother of pearl, or human bone—but they form very slowly. Once they finish growing, they are stubborn substances— resistant to external stimuli, and unwilling to be reconfigured to meet multiple or changing needs.

Prasad's team hopes to change both of those things. They want to create nanocomposites quickly, and they want these materials to be cooperative, responding to external stimuli such as light, temperature, pH, or electromagnetic fields. The result will be endlessly useful—microscopic structures that can be reconfigured according to need.

The research team includes Aidong Zhang, chair of UB's Department of Computer Science and Engineering, and Mark T. Swihart, director of the UB 2020 Strategic Strength in Integrated Nanostructured Systems—one of eight areas of interdisciplinary scholarship in which the university is investing through the UB 2020 strategic plan.

The potential for the kind of material they're creating is thrilling. By 2023, they could be used to create solar panels whose structures reconfigure themselves according to changes in weather, or medical devices that can diagnose and treat diseases ranging from influenza to cancer.

But 2023 is 10 years away, and with most federal organizations lacking the patience for such long-term research, Prasad found a willing supporter in the United States Air Force, whose Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) awarded a $2.9 million grant Wanted: Nimble Nanomaterials 16 to his international research team. The AFOSR's Hugh DeLong serves as the program manager.

To build their nanomaterials, Prasad's team is using a varied palette of nanoparticles, including gold, silver, and silica. The endlessly varied combinations of materials would be impossible for human hands to test efficiently, so they will turn to high-throughput methods to test hundreds of combinations at once, and data mining techniques to help them make sense of it.

"One of our goals is to contribute to the fundamental understanding of how the spatial arrangement of nanoscale components in materials affects their optical, magnetic, and plasmonic properties," Prasad says. "The high-throughput techniques and big data approaches we are using were pioneered in the field of bioinformatics, but also have extraordinary promise in the exploration of advanced materials." Just as these nanostructures are assembled from disparate types of compounds—natural and synthetic, organic and inorganic—this research effort has come about because of cooperation at various levels. Statewide support has bolstered UB's science programs, and the cooperation of the Air Force has allowed Prasad and his team to reach out to researchers as far away as Australia for help with this research.

"This project is an example of the enormous research opportunities at the intersection of materials science and informatics," says Alexander N. Cartwright, vice president for research and economic development at UB. "The scientists leading this project are experts in several different fields, and they are bringing their skills and expertise together to conduct materials research. This kind of collaboration is at the heart of what UB's New York State Center of Excellence in Materials Informatics strives to achieve—by drawing on the talents of researchers across disciplines, we can pursue advanced and complex research projects." That's a goal worth pursuing, even if it takes some time.

Photo: The University at Buffalo's New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences is just one of several state-of-the-art university facilities on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.