Posted on
Zain Tariq | December 6, 2022

When we are asked to imagine the engineering marvels of the future, our minds tend to wander towards images of huge skyscrapers, massive energy systems, and faster transportation. In reality, innovations in engineering have actually been getting smaller and smaller over time. In the future, the most impactful machines are those we won’t be able to see. In this article I will shine a light on the Vanderbilt Institution of Nanoscale Engineering (VINSE) and analyze their breakthrough research in nanomachines.

The first question is what exactly is “nanoscale,” and why is it so groundbreaking to make machines smaller? The nanoscale is around 1-100 nanometers which is about a billionth of a meter. This is the scale at which things like ribosomes, protein, and viruses exist along with molecules like glucose. By using machines this size scientists can not only view the actions of cells but also create artificial blood vessels and tiny brain electrodes to track the diffusion of molecules in the brain. 

Alongside this what makes the nanoscale unique is at this small of a scale quantum forces can actually be used to unlock and modify properties of materials. Christopher Sharp, a PHD candidate working with VINSE, stated: “ In more recent years, nanocrystal synthesis has led to the discovery of novel crystal phases in other materials where previously only one of the hexagonal or cubic phases were known in the bulk.” 

With specialized machines (such as soft lithography and electron scanning devices), 3D printing areas, and multiple clean rooms, VINSE has been at the forefront of nanoscale technology in America. 

Now that we understand what exactly nanotechnology can do, we can delve deeper into specific innovations from VINSE.

By being much smaller than cells nanotechnology can be used for vaccine and drug delivery. This is especially important in cancer where modern treatment often ends up attacking both healthy and cancerous cells. This leads to the side effects seen from chemotherapy where the patient’s body and immune system become extremely weak. 

Jenna Dombroski, a PhD student at Vanderbilt, developed a vaccine for breast cancer that involves breaking cancer cells into nanoparticles. The process for breaking a cell was discovered by using VINSE’s analytical laboratories. The report discovered that one dose of these nanosized cancer particles was able to reduce tumor growth in mice injected with breast cancer. This is because the immune system was able to learn how to identify the cancer cells using data from the vaccine and then specifically attack those cells. In general, nanotechnology can allow us to deliver drugs directly to the source of the disease, ignoring healthy cells and more effectively curing patients.

Figure 1: Tumor Volume in Mice treated with Tumor Nano-Lysates (yellow line) versus Untreated Mice (black line).

  Nanotechnology can also be used to help create more efficient batteries and energy conversion methods. This is because the smaller we can build, the more efficient our energy systems since less energy is lost to the surrounding environment. 

Joshua Passantino, a graduate student in Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering, wrote a paper titled “PhotosystemI Enhances the Efficiency of a Natural, Gel-Based Dye Sensitized Solar Cell.” In this paper, he uses a regular solar panel but integrates a Photosystem I (PSI) gel into the solar cell. PSI is what plants use as the initial step to produce electrons and energy from light. Using nanotechnology, Passantino was able to integrate a gel that uses a PSI system into a solar panel. 

This increased the solar panel energy output and efficiency. The gel is also plant based, meaning it doesn’t rely on unsustainable minerals that contribute to global warming. This is one example of how nanotechnology can revolutionize our ability to couture energy because of how we can use it to engineer more efficient systems. VINSE has also worked on batteries and capacitors that can store electricity for longer in structures built on the nanoscale.

As our abilities to produce smaller and smaller machines increase, we will continue to see massive advancements in all areas of science. Soon, we may be able to have nanomachines that can enhance our immune system or energy systems with much greater efficiencies that can sustainably power our future. VINSE have also begun offering classes to Vanderbilt students along with outreach programs in Nashville as a whole. It is their mission to increase knowledge of nanoscience through providing scientists the tools to create breakthrough technology.