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Big Science, Small Miracles

By George Alexander, Illustrations by Josh Dorman

Published Jan 1, 2009 8:05 AM


Nanotechnology — the science of microscopic machines that promise miracles in almost every area of society — is the Next Big Thing. In ways both profound and mundane, from fighting cancer to clean energy and even creating better tennis balls, nanotechnology is a game changer. And UCLA is a major player.

It is the day after tomorrow. Inside our bodies, microscopic machines one billionth of a meter small — you could cram more than 25 million of them in an inch — hunt and kill cancer cells and re-grow flesh and bone. They erect buildings, clean oil spills, fabricate or improve clothing, electronics, agriculture, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

Is this the shape of things to come? Some of it will be. But quite a few of these advances are already here, thanks to the "disruptive" science of nanotechnology — the control of matter on an atomic and molecular scale. And on this fantastic voyage, you will find literally hundreds of Bruin researchers, scholars and students leading the way.

Honey, We Shrunk the Science

First, a quick lesson about the science of the super-small. Nanotechnology is a relatively new field — the general concept was first proposed in a 1959 lecture by famed physicist Richard Feynman — that draws upon classical physics, chemistry, biology, biochemistry, materials and engineering, often in combination, and yet is sui generis because it deals with nature on an exceedingly small scale, where matter is the aforementioned billionths of a meter in size.

To provide perspective: A human hair is about 80,000 nanometers in diameter and grows at the speed of about 400,000 nanometers a day. That might seem like a lot until you realize just how small one-billionth of a meter (a nanometer, or nm) really is: You could slide 600,000 10-nm-diameter slivers inside a soda straw. Smallness is no problem for nature, however, because almost all chemical, biological and physical transactions take place down on the nanoscale level, between molecules or single atoms measuring between 1 and 100-200 nm.


Scientists and engineers have long known that this Lilliputian world existed but, until recently, have been like so many Gullivers trying to enter it. Now, however, using innovative new tools and processes, researchers are finally accessing these tiny domains.

The number, breadth and ingenuity of nanodevices being reported almost daily from around the world would discomfit Alice In Wonderland's Red Queen as she chose which six impossible things to believe before her breakfast: artificial retinas ... replacement or regenerated muscles, cartilage, teeth and bone ... "sponges" that soak up oil spills and filters that trap greenhouse gases ... drug delivery systems that hone in on cancer cells ... super-strong/super-lightweight materials ... crop sensors that monitor soil moisture or detect plant diseases and pests ... compact storage of liquid and gaseous fuels ... gene therapy ... electric batteries as thin as a sheet of paper and about the size of a postage stamp ... plastic solar cells as house paint or fabrics ... medical diagnostics ... even longer-lasting tennis balls and stronger racquets.

A Big Presence

Recognizing the potential of nanotechnology, the federal government established the National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2001 and has so far invested more than $10 billion in grants to universities, research laboratories and firms in support of world-class research and development. The Initiative also is meant to lay the foundations for commercial products and public benefits, encourage greater education development and provide opportunities for the emergence of a new, highly skilled workforce, all within a safe and responsible framework.

UCLA, with its extensive depth in a broad range of science and engineering, was already active in the field, as California voters had approved then-Governor Gray Davis' Nanotechnology Initiative in 2000. The legislation set up four research centers to "increase the state's capacity for creating the new knowledge and highly skilled people to drive entrepreneurial business growth and expand the California economy into new industries and markets."

UCLA received $65 million of the $100 million appropriated by the state in 2000 and in partnership with UC Santa Barbara established the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) to explore the areas of energy, environmental science, medicine, mechanics/fluidics and electronics. The California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences at UC San Francisco, in collaboration with UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, also received funding, as did the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology at UC San Diego, and the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, a collaboration among UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Merced and UC Santa Cruz.

Since then, CNSI researchers have been awarded approximately $350 million in federal research grants, and scientists at CNSI are developing biosensors to analyze blood samples for detection of minute forms of cancer; designing nanocomposite reverse-osmosis membranes to address water sustainability needs; and creating a polymer technology that will allow homeowners to capture solar power through curtains, windows and even the paint on their homes.

In December 2007, CNSI opened the most technologically complex structure ever built at UCLA, an 188,000-square-foot, seven-story building where scientists in different fields can work and collaborate together. CNSI houses highly specialized state-of-the-art laboratory spaces, an auditorium, conference rooms, outdoor terraces and meeting spaces. The facility also features a soaring network of bridges straight out of a Harry Potter movie that crisscross and connect different parts of the building, symbolizing creation through intense collaboration.

At CNSI — one of only three nanotechnology centers in the country recognized by the federal government — and elsewhere on campus, almost 100 Bruin faculty and hundreds of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, as well as industry scientists and researchers from other universities, are exploring this fascinating science of the small. CNSI is even helping Los Angeles-area high school science teachers incorporate nanoscience into their standard core curriculum through the High School Nanoscience Program, run by CNSI scientist and UCLA Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor Sarah Tolbert.

"On a simple level, the most exciting thing about nanotechnology is it's the same technology we're already using that can now have different applications and utility simply by changing size scale," Tolbert says. "It lets you multiply the dimensions where you can take functional materials."

And the stakes go way beyond longer-lasting tennis balls or regrown teeth.

The New Technology Race

"Nanotechnology has the potential to bear significantly on our future, our economy, our environment and our health," notes CNSI interim director Dr. Leonard H. Rome, associate dean of research at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and director for strategic planning and partnerships at UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. And, indeed, the efforts of UCLA and other research resources could help restore U.S. leadership in science and technology.

The United States once owned the technology of the transistor and, with it, almost everything in the world that was electronic — just as it also once owned the science and technologies underlying nuclear energy, aerospace, manufacturing, agriculture, communications, medicine and biotechnology. Today, the U.S. either no longer dominates many of these fields or shares primacy with other nations in Europe and Asia.


But in nanoscience, the U.S. can draw upon its still-robust technical skills and reclaim a leadership role that will be beneficial and rewarding for both itself and others. Nanotechnology can almost overnight stand an established field or industry on its head. In their day, the internal combustion engine, electrical power, the telephone, the transistor, the airplane, broadcasting, the jet engine and the Internet all overturned the status quo. Now it is nanotechnology's turn.

With federal support, plus additional funding from states eager to see new "Silicon Valleys" or "Route 128s" within their borders, 26 different U.S. agencies, at least 20 states, and hundreds of universities and corporations have embarked on a broad range of nanoscale research and development efforts here in the United States. Similar, vigorous efforts are ongoing in Europe (especially) and in Asia as well.

In fact, CNSI is already a source of leadership in nanodevelopments for scientists from around the world, attracting worldwide attention from researchers such as the scientists from the University of Tokyo who came to Westwood in December 2007 for a symposium on nanobiotechnology. As UCLA Chancellor Gene Block noted at the CNSI opening, "collaboration will enable CNSI to meet its potential as an incubator for life-changing discoveries and a training ground for this century's leaders in science and technology."

Professor James K. Gimzewski, a chemist/biochemist member of CNSI, believes that medical diagnostic and therapeutic agents are the likeliest near-term applications of nanotechnology, followed by nanomaterials for energy conversion and storage and nanostructures for super-strength and lightweight materials. CNSI is active in all these areas, with professors from the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, the College of Letters and Science, the Life and Physical Sciences divisions and UCLA Health Systems engaged in cross-disciplinary, collaborative research efforts.

In the past few years, UCLA's nanopioneers, on their own and in partnership with other universities, used the disruptive technology to develop the world's fastest bar code reader; advanced the idea of creating medical diagnostic applications small enough to fit into cell phones — in effect, bringing the hospital to the patient — and developed a revolutionary nanotech water desalination membrane. UCLA chemists even made a nanosized compound of interlocked rings in the shape of King Solomon's knot, a symbol of wisdom thousands of years old.

They have plenty of company.

The Littlest Patients

In October, Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA announced the new Mattel UCLA NanoPediatrics Program, believed to be the world's first nanotechnology program dedicated solely to pediatric patients. Edward R.B. McCabe, famed UCLA pediatric physician, professor of genetics and bioengineering, and physician-in-chief, is using nanodiagnostics to develop the screening of newborn children at risk for obesity, cancer or other diseases and illnesses later in life.


Using a commercial nanodiagnostic machine, McCabe takes a small tissue or blood sample from the patient, isolates the DNA and breaks it up into very small segments. These nanoscale pieces are tagged with fluorescent markers and flowed across the machine's nanoscale array of 900,000 DNA sequences known to be linked to different diseases.

"What we're working on," says McCabe, "is a way to say this baby is someday going to be at risk for obesity, or asthma, or any one of a number of diseases, including cancer." Knowing that propensity could lead to treatment or management strategies to prevent or lessen the child's chances of succumbing to his/her otherwise genetic fate.

Cancer Killers

One strategy for dealing with diseases such as cancer that is being actively pursued at many research institutions around the world, including UCLA, is nanoscale drug delivery systems.

Professors Jeffrey Zink, a chemist/biochemist, and Fuyu Tamanoi, a microbiologist/immunologist/molecular geneticist, are co-directors of CNSI's Nano Machine Center for Targeted Delivery and On-Demand Release; they are experimenting with a nanomachine that might be likened to a Trojan Horse. The horse, in this case, is a tiny machine made of mesoporous silica, its pore interiors coated with a compound that responds to light by moving in a back-and-forth motion.

In in vitro experiments, Zink and Tamanoi have let colon and pancreatic cancer cells take up the nanoparticles and then shone a light on them, causing them to move just enough to expel their lethal contents from the silica pores into the tumor cells. Zink and Tamanoi are now focused on steering these tiny Trojan Horses unerringly to tumor cells, in vivo, with just the right lethal dosage to do their disease-fighting job.

Fuel Feeder

In a potential energy application, Omar Yaghi, a professor of chemistry, biochemistry and inorganic chemistry, is exploring uses for tiny particles that his lab discovered, called metal-organic frameworks (MOFs). These molecules offer very large internal surfaces — one gram of an experimental zinc compound, he says, has the areal extent of 40 tennis courts — to hold very large quantities of hydrogen or compressed natural gas, two fuels often described as the eventual replacements for gasoline and oil.

A 1-liter container, its interior filled with these zinc-oxide MOFs, can hold twice as much hydrogen as an identical 1-liter bottle minus the nanoparticles, Yaghi says. Substitute compressed natural gas for hydrogen, and that same 1-liter container could hold enough fuel to double the range of a city bus. Like Zink and Tamanoi, however, Yaghi also has hurdles to overcome: how to move the hydrogen into and out of the MOFs easily, at ambient temperatures.

Water Cleaner

Another UCLA professor, Eric Hoek M.S. '96, is concerned with environmental issues — specifically, water treatment. Dirty, polluted water is an obvious target for treatment, but even the cleanest-looking mountain stream can be carrying harmful bacteria or particles, toxic chemicals and other impurities. And seawater, of course, contains salt, which renders it undrinkable.

Hoek is embedding polymer membranes with nanoparticles to make seawater potable in a way that is more energy-efficient and, therefore, less expensive. His nanocomposite membranes block salts, bacteria and other harmful elements, while allowing H2O molecules to be pumped through rapidly and with less energy input than other membranes.

While the nanoparticles that Hoek uses are non-toxic and inert, he is concerned about potential workplace and environmental hazards. He is working with other scientists and engineers to understand at a more basic level the potential toxicity of other nanomaterials, such as metal and metal oxides, and carbon nanotubes.

"We have to be certain we understand the physical and chemical properties [of these materials]," Hoek explains.

The Large, Looming Question of Nanoethics

To address this and other environmental questions of this promising new field, the National Science Foundation last September granted $24 million to UCLA and 12 collaborating institutions in the U.S., Europe and Asia to establish a Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology.

"We are deeply committed to ensuring that nanotechnology is introduced and implemented in a responsible and environmentally compatible manner," explains Dr. André E. Nel, chief of UCLA's Nanomedicine Division and the director of this new organization.

Caution is an appropriate position to take with this new technology, notes UCLA Law School Professor Timothy F. Malloy, co-director of the Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic. "We're in the earliest evolutionary stages of this field, still at the elementary science level," he says, "so we still have time to consider its societal, ethical and legal implications."

Noting that there are bills now moving through Congress that bear on the health and environmental impacts of nanotechnology, Malloy adds: "If we regulate too precipitously and too heavily, we might very well impede the progress of this promising new field. Too slowly, too lightly, and we might regret not having taken more effective measures."

The ethics of nanotechnology go beyond green issues, of course. A recent National Science Foundation survey identified five public concerns of this new field: privacy violations, through monitoring devices too small to be noticed by the spied-upon; new and insidious weapons; human ingestion, with deleterious and possibly irreversible effects; economic disruptions; and self-replicating, uncontrollable nanobots — the Big Bad in Michael Crichton's creepy 2002 thriller, Prey.

Still, that same survey found that people expect medical advances will be the greatest near-term benefit to come from nanotechnology, followed closely by environmental remediation, security and national defense, enhanced human physical and intellectual capabilities and, bringing up the rear, inexpensive, long-lasting consumer goods.

Whatever tomorrow brings, nanotechnology may be bringing it to us. Will the disruptive technology ever reach the amazing scenario we described at the beginning of our fantastic voyage? "Yes and no," concludes UCLA's Tolbert. "Nanoscale materials are doing amazing things — but Michael Crichton is never going to be a reality."


The California NanoSystems Institute's headquarters is seven stories and 188,000 square feet of space that includes labs, clean rooms, and specially engineered space to house, among many other wonders, an Atomic Force Microscope. There are also vast community areas to stimulate collaboration among researchers, six outdoor terraces, a 260-seat theater, and 11 conference and break rooms equipped with kitchenettes.
Photo by Reed Hutchinson '71.

A Small (but Select) Nanotechnology Reading List

Scientists aren't the only people entranced by nanotechnology. Writers love it too, particularly science-fiction authors. The science of the super-small is featured in a long and growing list of books, mostly as a catch-all explanation for any number of fantastic abilities or future worlds. A sampler of some of the more noteworthy:

1956: "The Next Tenants," by Arthur C. Clarke. The science-fiction icon's short story isn't about nanotechnology per se, but it does feature tiny machines that operate on a microscale (a millionth of a meter). That's gigantic compared to nanoscale (a billionth of a meter), but the idea is basically the same.

1959: "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," by Richard Feynman. This famous talk given by the legendary physicist at Caltech isn't fiction, but it explores what Feynman described as "the problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale." Some cite this speech as the first public discussion of the concept.

1985: "Blood Music," by Greg Bear. In this best-seller, a fired and maladjusted cellular biologist injects himself with his own creations — what one reviewer describes as "microscopic biological computers." Not surprisingly, things go very, very wrong.

1986: "Engines of Creation," by K. Eric Drexler. This is nonfiction also, but it makes the list because it is considered one of the general public's first introductions to nanotechnology itself. The book looks at implications for engineering, medicine, the economy, the environment and other areas, and ponders how nanotech will play out in the future.

1993: "Assemblers of Infinity," by Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason. Many works of fiction explore how humanity might misuse nanotechnology. This novel dives into an even weirder concept: What would alien nanotech be like?

1994: "Queen City Jazz," by Kathleen Ann Goonan. A nanoplague threatens humanity in this twisted vision of the future, in which a strange young girl searches for answers in the "enlivened" city of Cincinnati. This is the first of four novels in Goonan's "Nanotech Quartet" series.

2002: "Prey," by Michael Crichton. In the late author's best-selling thriller, a swarm of killer nanobots break free of the scientists who created them and wreak havoc.