The pervasive applications of nanotechnology

Amrita Banerjee

Nanotechnology is at the forefront of being pervasive in all aspects of our daily lives. In the complimentary fields of electronics and nanotechnologies, the application possibilities for the benefit of mankind are vast. Nanotechnology-based advances include the potential to revolutionize medicine, contribute to the protection of the earth's environment, enhance the capabilities of homeland security, provide new approaches in energy creation and storage, as well as improve the size, performance, and effectiveness of many other traditional consumer and industrial applications throughout the globe.

The Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology (IEN) is a large interdisciplinary center at Georgia Tech charged with performing cutting-edge nanotechnology research and developing technologies that can improve human health, commerce, communications, security and the environment.

Smaller electronics, improved performance

One group within the IEN is the Mixed Signal Design Laboratory, directed by Dr. Madhavan Swaminathan. The focus of his group is to miniaturize electronic systems, with the goal of developing new design methodologies that reduce the volume of common products such as smartphones, laptops, and super-computers. Recently, Dr. Swaminathan's group has been utilizing magnetodielectric materials to reduce antenna size and miniaturize RF modules. They are also pioneering new electrical signaling techniques by integrating circuits for improved power delivery and enhanced signal integrity.

"The result of these projects have been enormous; it has resulted in more than 50 students pursuing and completing their Master's and Doctorate degrees and two spin off companies -- Jacket Micro Devices and E-System Design," says Dr. Swaminathan. These recent achievements accompany several other cutting edge technologies and innovations developed over the lab's 20 year history at Georgia Tech.

Nanoscale design of materials

Dr. Seth Marder's interdisciplinary research lab within the IEN seeks to understand how chemical structures at the nanoscale determine the electrical and optical properties of materials. Specifically, the Marder group investigates the design of organic and metal-containing materials that are highly polarized or polarizable. The next generation of information processing and communication technologies will rely on the nanoscale design of materials with custom tailored electrical properties.

In order to design such materials, Dr. Marder credits the IEN's "tremendous resources" to process and study materials. "Most institutions don't have such a complete set of instruments, as well as talented and committed staff, with extensive expertise in maintaining, operating and training users," explained Dr. Marder. "This enables research groups like mine to take on very tough problems that can impact both our understanding of materials, as well as our ability to fabricate both materials and devices with state-of-the-art performance."

Needles that don't hurt

In the United States, more than 10 million vaccines are administered yearly. Nearly all vaccines, including some pharmaceuticals are delivered subcutaneously by needle injection. However, patient discomfort from the needle is very common and often deters individuals from receiving the vaccine. Dr. Mark Prausnitz sought to correct this problem and improve drug delivery by designing "nano-needles." The Prausnitz research group has been able to create an array of nanoneedles that are spaced 10 microns apart to deliver drugs through the skin.

"The approach is that we make arrays of needles that each taper to a tip of just 25 nm, which can puncture cells without damaging them," explained Dr. Prausnitz. "We use this to deliver DNA, proteins and other molecules into cells with high throughput."

A monolayer of skin cells first bathe in the molecule(s) or drug to deliver. The cells are then punctured by the nano-needles and the molecules diffuse into the cells. Thus, this method has been able to treat a quarter-million cells once at a time -- in comparison to microinjection which can only deliver drugs to one cell at a time.

The nanotechnology field coalesces an interdisciplinary group of researchers, spanning disciplines from physics to biosciences and materials science to electrical engineering. Research in electronics and nanotechnology -- supported by strengths in related areas such as biomedicine, materials, and policy -- provides the foundation for a broad range of advances with industrial applications. Recently, the convergence of such disciplines has led to transformative opportunities, discoveries, and products that have impacted how humans live, communicate, and treat disease.