Good things come in small packages. And in Threes.
December 15, 2009 11:50 PM   Subscribe

Nanoparticles often get a bad rap in popular media. From discredited scenarios (grey goo) to more plausible concerns (cancer), often the emphasis in reporting is on its risks rather than its potential rewards. But this has been a good week for the tiny science.

The discovery at Harvard of a new technique for making alcohol esters at room temperature with gold nanoparticles may result in much cleaner, greener fabric production.

A new method of gel electrophoresis patented by researchers at Bath University creates a molecular sieve to sort proteins by size and shape, raising the possibility of a blood test for Alzheimers or similar conditions.

And a group at MIT have performed analyses on a new way to create stable Casimir molecules that could potentially solve problems that have hindered the creation of complex moving nanostructures.
posted by Hardcore Poser (24 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I am totally telling my folks that I work in tiny science from now on.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 12:01 AM on December 16, 2009

What led you to pick those three particular papers? Speaking as a person who sort of kind of works in the field, I see cool things like this all the time. Whether or not it's actually viable in real life is a whole other story, unfortunately.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 12:03 AM on December 16, 2009

What led you to pick those three particular papers?

It looks like all three are dated December 15, 2009.
posted by IvoShandor at 12:33 AM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

On the gold article:

-Harvard press release (in case you trust the World Gold Council's* take)
-Article in Chemistry World (because the Harvard realease sucks)

*"an organisation formed and funded by the world's leading gold mining companies with the aim of stimulating and maximising the demand for, and holding of Gold."
posted by IvoShandor at 12:41 AM on December 16, 2009

Better summary of "molecular sieve" press release in Science Daily [Actual Proteomics Paper (pay site)].

If this is nanotechnology at work, I've got to rechristen my water softener a "molecular calcium/magnesium plucker".
posted by benzenedream at 12:56 AM on December 16, 2009

"The first reaction is "I'm glad you guys (that includes women, of course) found a new name for chemistry. Now you have the incentive to learn what you didn't want to learn in college." Chemists have been practicing nanotechnology, structure and reactivity and properties, for two centuries, and for 50 years by design."

I don't like to criticize, sorry, but these articles aren't that great. There's more interesting stuff out there, and there are plenty of non-commercial websites where you can get this same if not better information.
posted by peppito at 1:11 AM on December 16, 2009

and apparently I don't know how to close blockquote.
posted by peppito at 1:12 AM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

The article in the "discredited" link is a pretty weak walk-back to the grey goo worries that Drexler himself ignited.

The new don't worry argument seems to boil down to: (1) we don't have that kind of technology yet anyway, so don't worry; and (2) if we ever do, we won't make those machines, because they're not necessary, so don't worry.

Why does my worry remain unquelled?
posted by rokusan at 2:13 AM on December 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


Because you've read too much science fiction :)
posted by effugas at 3:04 AM on December 16, 2009

I dunno... Drexler-1986 scared me. Drexler-2009 says it's all gonna be fine.

I think I should keep digging this hypercube-shaped bomb shelter before Drexler from Earth-3 shows up with some kind of goo-powered army. Just in case.
posted by rokusan at 3:14 AM on December 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

Am I alone in liking these comments more than the articles? :)
posted by Boyo at 4:29 AM on December 16, 2009

The basic problem I've had with Drexler's goo arguments is that they require an almost complete, and willful ignorance of basic biochemistry. He handwaves away the problem that efficiently using the energy and mass locked up into the biosphere requires catalysts that are both extremely specific and highly sensitive to environmental conditions such as salinity, pH, and temperature. The world is already covered in a green goo, and what we've learned from it is that the system favors high degrees of specialization.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:30 AM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Am I alone in liking these comments more than the articles?

And this is different than any other MeFi thread.... how?
posted by rokusan at 6:05 AM on December 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

Sometimes, I wish I worked in nanotechnology. Not because I'm any good with the chemistry or minute forces at play, but because I'd love to have an investor come in, and lie to him about all the stuff I'm working on. Then, when he asks to see it, I'll say, "Unfortunately, we don't have a powerful enough microscope to show you our work. However, an electron microscope can be had pretty cheap these days..."
posted by mccarty.tim at 6:07 AM on December 16, 2009

>Why does my worry remain unquelled?

We're fine so long as the scientists don't say "Don't worry, nothing will go wrong!" And even when they do, like with CERN, they'll most likely just break their expensive machines instead of killing anyone.
posted by mccarty.tim at 6:12 AM on December 16, 2009

Well, gray goo would have to thrive outside the lab to be any threat. That means it has to take its raw materials and energy from nature. So we're talking about something that's organic, and almost certainly made from proteins (that's what's out there, and of course proteins are so ubiquitous because they are perfectly suited for building complex, tiny machines). It will have to deal with hot and cold, wet and dry, light and dark, and of course it would have to harvest energy and materials, grow, repair itself, and replicate.

Okay, this can be done, but here's the problem: the world currently contains a huge amount of this gray goo, and for trillions of generations, the most vicious and successful individuals have survived to pass on their traits. Pretty much any single-celled species is entirely populated by suicide soldiers that will kill themselves, release toxins, or go into dormant states when they detect unfavorable conditions ---anything to increase the odds of survival of their sister cells. Worse still, horizontal gene transfer means that successful traits can literally jump species. Any artificial gray goo will be up against these killers, not to mention viruses. Any nanotechnology gray goo will be like a puppy being released to go fight a herd of billions of lions. No contest.

And that is of course assuming it's ever made. Self replication is not some easy thing that might happen by accident. The odds that some non-self-replicating nano-device will spontaneously begin self-replicating is about the same as the odds of your computer desktop spontaneously achieving sentience. It simply won't happen. Anyone who wanted to destroy the world by unleashing gray goo would be better served by trying to alter an existing virus to be more deadly.
posted by Humanzee at 7:25 AM on December 16, 2009 [5 favorites]

It seems to me that these various goos are the 21st century equivalent of the philosopher's stone, a substance with magical powers as a universal catalyst that exists just around the corner of our technical know-how.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:29 AM on December 16, 2009

Of course, the quest for the philosopher's stone led to discoveries that far exceeded it's original conception: gravity, chemistry, and medicine pop to mind.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:33 AM on December 16, 2009

Be afraid, be slightly afraid...
posted by aeshnid at 7:55 AM on December 16, 2009

Be afraid, be slightly afraid...

Nanomaterial toxicity is a real bitch to figure out, unfortunately. It's extremely challenging to separate the effects of chemical composition, surface chemistry, size and other effects such as agglomeration/aggregation.

That WP article mentions fullerenes-- there's a whole bunch of fullerene derivatives with radically different chemical and physical properties that can effect their solubility and thus concentration in aqueous media. This will have a huge impact on any toxicity observed.

Previous studies where the researchers injected fullerenes into mice showed very low toxicity, even at really high concentrations. I would say the jury is still out on nanoparticle toxicity.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 10:29 AM on December 16, 2009

"Grey goo" would have to be amazingly efficient at harvesting energy in order to disassemble anything that is already in a very low energy state (e.g. concrete). I think the best we can hope for in our lifetime is "Grey Lichen™", a very slow goo that harvests sunlight and dissolves everything we hold dear over a matter of decades.
posted by benzenedream at 11:12 AM on December 16, 2009

Nanomaterial toxicity is a real bitch to figure out, unfortunately.

I recently acquired my first piece of something advertised as nanotechnology. Needing a new ski jacket I ended up with a technical shell finished with Schoeller Technologies AG NanoSphere. Silicon nanoparticles are embedded in a matrix to create a non-smooth fabric surface. Virtually nothing sticks to this fabric. Get a toothbrush and try to rub ketchup into the fabric. Nope. It's really quite sci-fi and apparently the entire production process is vastly more environmentally sound than current chemistry that uses a bunch of flourochemicals. You can email Schoeller(address in above link) and they'll send you a fabric sample.

They claim it passes all the cytotoxicity and genotoxicity tests they could think up but I'm just letting you all know now in case I'm ever diagnosed with Andromeda Strain.
posted by well_balanced at 12:48 PM on December 16, 2009

benzenedream: "If this is nanotechnology at work, I've got to rechristen my water softener a "molecular calcium/magnesium plucker"."

Mea culpa; I was taking it from a Nanotech journal and was too groggy to research what is involved. To be honest I didn't have enough background to know the difference. Next time I'll stay out of the deep end, I promise :)

Back to the subject. I was curious about a throwaway paragraph in the first link, and hoped it might come out in discussion:
Elsewhere, Professor Zhu Huai Yong of Queensland University of Technology in Australia recently discovered that gold nanoparticles contained in medieval stained glass windows actually purify the air.
First of all: Gold nanoparticles being accidentally created in medieval times? How long has this been known?
Second: Is there any research being done in scaling up this for, say, industrial use, with other nanomaterials?
posted by Hardcore Poser at 1:19 PM on December 16, 2009

Yep, gold nanoparticles have been used for a long time-- they give stained glass a characteristic red tint.

Industrial scale production of nanomaterials is... ongoing. The problem always is that while they can have some fairly impressive properties, the materials they are typically attempting to replace are so dirt cheap the economics aren't there yet. Most applications that I know of involve the marketing of "nano" where consumers perceive some sort of improvement such as carbon fibre sporting equipment, clothing, etc.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 10:24 PM on December 20, 2009

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