The Nano world…can you see it?

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

New revolutionary airplanes are made of nanocomposites, new cancer treatments use nanocarriers, new hydration creams use nanocapsules to keep you hydrated 24h and nanofibers are changing the clothes we wear. Furthermore, in the food industry nanoparticles in the packaging protect the contents longer from bacteria and degradation. Making planes lighter and stronger, drugs more target-specific, food with less preservatives, new generation cosmetics and smart packaging have one thing in common that is changing our lives: Nanotechnology.

[1] Serra‐Gómez R, Gonzalez-Gaitano G, González-Benito J. Composites based on EVA and barium titanate submicrometric particles: Preparation by high‐energy ball milling and characterization. Polym Compos 2012;33:1549–56.

What do we know about it? Nano is a designator of scale, a nanometer being one billionth of a meter, that’s to say 0.000000001 meters. For us to imagine the size, we could say that the relation of a nanometer to a marble is similar to the relation in size of that same marble to the Earth. A sheet of paper would be 100.000 nm thick and our nails grow one nanometer per second… small, aren’t they?

The importance of nanotechnology in science is based on the bottom-up approach. The nanoscale is the scale of atoms and molecules. Having the ability to operate at the nanoscale allows us to arrange them in specific ways, to create larger structures from the start that will have specific properties. With nanotechnology, we can, for the first time, get a hold of the Lego pieces that build our world and try to create new structures with either innovative properties or improved ones. The nanoworld has always been there, now we can interact with it.

In our department of Chemistry and Soil Sciences, and more specifically in the research group of Physical Chemistry there are a few lines of research involving nanoparticles and cyclodextrins. My research has been focused in the field of polymeric nanocomposites, which consist of a polymeric matrix and of nanoparticles of Barium Titanate homogenously dispersed inside this matrix. When a nanocomposite is prepared, we not only obtain the properties of the two components separately, but also new interesting properties that generate from the interface interactions of the nanoparticles with the matrix. On the other hand, cyclodextrins are oligosaccharides with a donut shape, with particular hydrophobic and hydrophilic characteristics that allow us to encapsulate and deliver drugs and target molecules on-demand.

Barium Titanate is a piezoelectric ceramic formerly used for electric applications. However, we are exploring the possibilities of using them as biomaterials. Being piezoelectric means that when a pressure stimulus is executed upon the molecule, its crystalline structure deforms and generates an electric response and vice versa. Our eardrums work like that. As you can observe, this is really helpful in living creatures. We are studying the effect of those nanoparticles embedded in a hydrogel for bone regeneration purposes.  We expect to tailor hydrogels that contain cyclodextrin-modified nanoparticles that will be liquid at room temperature but solidify at body temperature, thus filling a small fracture. The nanoparticles piezoelectricity can help the bone healing process and the same time specific molecules can be delivered through the cyclodextrins.

What about now, even if it is surrounding us, can you see the nanoworld?

Rafael Serra 
PhD Candidate at the Physical Chemistry research group. 
Department of Chemistry and Soil Sciences
University of Navarra

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