Chemistry professors Phil DeShong and Bryan Eichhorn are separated physically by only one floor in their classroom building in College Park, Md. But their research into the uses, applications and possible health effects of nanotechnology are essentially worlds apart.
Nanotechnology is the broad term used to describe both the materials constructed at the atomic and molecular levels and the research and development of those materials.
Nanotech is grabbing greater attention in Washington, D.C., and around the world as products featuring the scientific developments are hitting store shelves, forcing a debate over how to limit health and safety risks.
But in the laboratory, the focus isn't on how to limit nanotechnology, but finding out if its reach has any limits.
Sitting at a desktop computer in his chemistry department office at the University of Maryland, DeShong scrolls through a slide show, stopping on something that looks like a round sponge, or a balloon. But in reality the photo is of something much, much smaller, and maybe one day in the near future, something a lot more important.
The miniature globe is actually so small, about one/10,000th of a millimeter wide, it can only be seen with the most advanced electron microscopes. Upon further inspection, it's not even just a simple globe. It's made of even tinier globes: Imagine a perfectly round, invisible balloon with a dozens of even smaller balloons attached to the surface — something on the order of marbles stuck on a basketball.
In the microscopic photo, the large silica balloon appears gray, and the smaller ones are black. The gray balloons in reality, are solid silica, or glass. The black balloons are solid gold on the smallest scale, really only made of 40 or 50 individual atoms of gold.
DeShong and a team of scientists based in College Park have developed these tiny globes and ones similar in their laboratories. What DeShong's team is seeking to do is something that right now, doctors can only dream of: Using a war analogy, the scientists want to develop an assassin-like technology for cancer cells to replace what is currently used — the medical equivalent of carpet bombing or nuclear weapons, chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
"The idea is you want to kill specific cells. ... You want to go after those dangerous cells," DeShong said.
The miniature globes are being designed to carry a cancer cell-killing drug and deliver it directly to the cancer cell, destroying that one mutation, but leaving every other cell in the human body untouched. Chemotherapy, on the other hand, brings cancer patients to the brink of death before it is effective. Radiation therapy, while less harmful to the rest of the human body, still poses major health risks.
In controlled experiments, the gold mini-balloons serve as a connector to cancer cells. The silica serve as the drug carrier. After the gold balloon — covered with an organic chemical — attaches to the cancer cell, the silica balloon releases its cancer drug, destroying the cell.
One thing that researches will be looking for is what kind of side effects the mini-globes could create. So far, researchers haven't found a single sign that the miniature globes would do anything more than what they’re supposed to do, but until it's tested further they don't know for sure. The next step will be to test the vaccine in animals.
"If you can't do it in a rat, there's no chance you can use it" in humans, DeShong said.
And whether it works in humans, is the most important question: "That's the $64 million question," DeShong said.
One flight up the stairs from DeShong's office, behind a nondescript door, is Bryan Eichhorn's office. The materials Eichhorn works with are nearly identical to the ones DeShong uses, but far from serving the same purpose. Eichhorn is working with a team that could make fuel cells — the technology for automobiles that produce nearly zero pollutants and reduce the reliance on crude oil — more widely available.
Eichhorn steps to his chalkboard and begins drawing a simple sketch. A square represents the fuel cell. Divide the square in two: The line dividing the two halves is the site of a discovery made by Eichhorn's team that might one day make fuel cells less expensive to maintain, and therefore, more accessible to the average consumer.
The dividing line is actually a barrier inside the fuel cell that has tiny particles of platinum embedded in it. The platinum particles help turn hydrogen and oxygen into water, which in turn releases electricity. The electricity flows out of the fuel cell to power a motor.
The fuel cells in use right now need pure hydrogen, a highly flammable gas that is expensive to create and difficult to transport. But using another globe-like structure that Eichhorn's team stumbled upon, fuel cells wouldn't need pure hydrogen, but could use natural gas or other hydrogen-containing gases that cause current fuel cells to fail, and at a much cheaper cost to producers.
Under the high-powered microscope, Eichhorn's nano-globe looks more like a ball with little strings shooting out of the surface. The ball is made of gold and the strings are made of platinum. It was an accidental discovery.
"We're not exactly sure why it does that, but we're very happy that it does," Eichhorn said.
Under laboratory tests, the platinum-haired gold balls cleanse the impurities in natural gas that otherwise would ruin current fuel cells. The nanostructures would be embedded in the solid divider inside the fuel cell to replace the platinum-only particles.
Eichhorn said researchers are using many of the same types of technology to try to harness the sun's energy more effectively. Eichhorn said relatively simple mathematical equations show that the amount of solar energy that hits the Earth in one day is equivalent to the amount of energy of all types that humans use in one year.
If humans only knew how to harness more of that energy, the problems associated with fossil fuels — crude oil, natural gas, coal — could theoretically be solved. Scientists are trying to find better ways to develop electricity from solar panels and more efficiently derive hydrogen from the atmosphere.
Among energy researchers, "it's all coming down to nanochemistry," Eichhorn said.