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Graphic element Research > Growth > Research projects > Materials & technologies projects > Nanotechnology: a small science with a huge potential
Graphic element Nanotechnology: a small science with a huge potential

Major EU-funded nanotechnology projects:

Diagnostic tools for improving disease detection

Although genetic testing for diagnosing cystic fibrosis is available, it is expensive and time-consuming. Improved diagnostic systems are now being developed which will mean that defective genes can be detected more quickly and at a lower cost. These tests will be validated using the cystic fibrosis gene, but will have potential applications for any genetic disease.

Cystic fibrosis is the most common hereditary disease in Europe. People suffering from the disease have a defective gene - both parents must have the gene defect to pass it on to their offspring. The disease manifests itself in the lungs, and patients suffer from repeated cases of pneumonia and breathing difficulties, as well as a shortened life expectancy.

Its European presence was one reason cystic fibrosis was chosen as a model system in a recent EU project to prove the validity of new molecular diagnostic tools for genetic testing. 'Development of high-throughput PNA-based molecular diagnostic systems' is the name of a project in the 'Quality of Life and Management of Living Resources' Programme, part of the European Commission's Fifth Framework Programme.

However, the main reason for using the cystic fibrosis gene in this study is because it is large gene which can have more than 800 defects - mutations or variations - giving medical testing laboratories the daunting task of continually having to ascertain which ones, if any, are present. Current commercial methods can only detect about 30 known mutations. Sophisticated methods can, of course, detect them all, but are labour intensive, expensive and not suitable for routine use.

Description, impact and results
Genetic probes can be used to discover if a person has a mutation on a known gene. The probes are first labelled so that they can be readily detected and can attach themselves to the sample of DNA under investigation in places where the DNA sequence is complementary, such as a particular gene mutation. In this way, the presence of a defective gene can be verified.

This project will exploit the inherent advantages of a new kind of probe, PNA or peptide nucleic acid which is a laboratory-created model of DNA invented in Europe in the early 1990s. It is a piece of DNA that can bind to DNA and, because of the nature of its neutrally charged chemical backbone, this bond (PNA-DNA) is stronger than the DNA-DNA bond with normal probes. The project aims to build two new diagnostic systems for genetic testing based on: PNA probes arranged in a microarray (or DNA chip) format, and improved capillary electrophoresis - a separation technique in which different biomolecules move at different speeds through an electrically charged capillary tube.

Using PNA probes will mean that the test will be more sensitive and able to detect 50 to 100 mutations at any one time. A microarry or DNA array allows between 200 and 1 000 tests to be carried out simultaneously.

Two novel systems will be produced and commercialised. They will have a very high throughput, testing many samples, all at the same time, very efficiently and accurately. They will also be fully automated diagnostic systems.
If successful, the method has a very many potential applications and will be valuable in developing a test for any genetic disease where both the mutations and the causes are known.

Working partnership
There are six partners from four European countries: three from academia and three from industry. To achieve the project's objectives, participants with complementary expertise will work together, sharing their skills and know-how. The university research hospital, the Hôpital Henri Mondor (France) will develop the molecular diagnostic probes which, as microarrays, will be linked to glass slide supports by new coatings developed by the research institute, the Institute of Biocatalysis and Molecular Recognition (Italy). The research centre, the Max-Planck-Institut für Molekulare Genetik (Germany) will help design the improved capillary electrophoresis system for separating the mutations.

Innosense Srl (Italy) will develop new labels and dyes to detect the mutations. MEDWAY SA (Switzerland) will design the robotics and scanner (analysis) systems to fully automate the tests. IMSTAR (France) will provide the information imaging software and systems to complete the new diagnostic systems.

Project Co-ordinator
Michel Goossens
Hôpital Henri Mondor
94010 Créteil, France
Tel: +33 1 4081 2861 - Fax: +33 1 4981 2219

Non-stick or sticky medical devices

Understanding the mechanism that makes human cells stick to other surfaces could help to produce better medical devices. Nanostructures could form novel biomaterial coatings either to prevent cells from binding to surfaces - for instance, to prevent blood clotting - or to improve their adhesion and biocompatibility for repairing skin and other damaged tissues.

The living cells of the human body are very complex, and many of the effects of interactions or coupling of cells are presently unknown. In such biological systems, cells are able to stick to other surfaces. The degree of adhesion depends on both the structure of the material's surface at the nanoscale and on the characteristics of the cells. A new EU project has been initiated to explore this matter further and to study in greater depth the properties of cell-surface interfaces so as to bring together a number of isolated phenomena into a coherent theory to explain this adhesion mechanism. The 'Nanobiotechnology and medicine' project applies nanotechnology to biology in the 'Quality of Life and Management of Living Resources' programme, part of European Commission's Fifth Framework Programme.

Description, impact and results
The project aims to produce new materials, through the nanostructuring of surfaces, with improved surface properties. Examples of such include better biocompatibility for application in the field of biomedical devices for common medical procedures and treatments (such as the transport of blood and removal of other body fluids via catheters) and for the production of improved biomaterials for use in tissue engineering and wound healing.

Researchers currently fabricate nanostructures by using a printing process - electron-beam lithography - to print a surface pattern, which is a slow and expensive method. The 13-partner strong project team will examine three different nanofabrication methods for patterning surfaces to find the best and most economically viable alternative.

Three processes will be employed: 1) replicas of electron-beam lithographic masters will be used to transfer the pattern on to a surface by means of a 'stamping' or embossing technique whereby the pattern can be repeatedly transferred or coated on to materials such as polymers; 2) nanoparticles can be deposited precisely on to the surface to produce nanostructures instantly - these can then either be used as points of attachment or as a means of imparting low adhesion according to dimensions and shape; and 3) molten mixtures of polymers can separate out on cooling to produce nanostructures. These isolated and tiny polymer 'islands', where one polymer stands proud on the surface of the other, are evenly spaced and structured to form a nanostructure.

Applying nanotechnology to this area of biotechnology is of particular value for biomedical applications - devising ways to prevent cells from binding to a surface is an important feature of many medical devices. Here, a low adhesion component is required for hollow devices used to transport biological fluids such as blood and urine, either to prevent clotting of the blood as it passes through the tube, bacterial contamination, or to stop the tube becoming overgrown with cells.

Other important medical applications for low adhesion biomaterials involve preventing damaged tissue from sticking to other tissue surfaces - for example, after an abdominal operation such as an appendectomy. These surgical interventions can produce a lot of unnecessary post-operative pain when the tissues sticking together are torn apart by the patient's movements. The risk of having such post-operative pain can be reduced significantly if tissue adhesion is restricted by applying a biodegradable surface coating to the damaged tissue or organ.

Conversely, these coatings are also invaluable in situations where high adhesion is required to help surfaces and tissues stick together while the body heals itself. Examples include tissue repair devices (such as skin reconstruction) to enable solid tissue to bind together at the wound site while it heals or is repaired using a biodegradable scaffold (tissue engineering). Here, the nanostructured biomaterial would form the sticky surface that could bind itself to skin, muscles and other body tissues.

Working partnership
Five EU countries are participating in the project, which involves 13 partners including nine universities and four SMEs. The universities of Glasgow, Bari, Gothenburg, Stockholm and Strathclyde will carry out various methods of nanofabrication to produce the biomaterials. The universities of Glasgow, Ancona and Siena will study the adhesion and reaction of these new nanomaterials to human cells. While the University of Bologna and the industrial companies Advanced Medical Solutions (UK), Saxonia Medical (Germany), Ergo sp (Greece) and Bellco Spa (Italy) will test their biocompatibility in human tissue situations with a view to their exploitation in medical devices.

Project Co-ordinator
Prof. Adam Curtis
Centre for Cell Engineering, University of Glasgow
University Avenue, Glasgow G12 8QQ, Scotland
Tel: +44 141 330 5147 - Fax: +44 141 330 3730

Michel Goossens
Hôpital Henri Mondor
94010 Créteil, France
Tel: +33 1 4081 2861
Fax: +33 1 4981 2219

Taking the first step to a biomolecule chip

Nanotechnology could ensure the future progress and success of the semi-conductor industry. Using the principles found in nature, production of nanoscale electronic devices for computer chips can be both simplified and made cheaper. This EU research project aims to provide a better understanding of the basic technology involved, and then to develop the tools required for making electronic components by self-assembly.

Computer chips have doubled their processing power every year since the 1970s (Moore's Law). More and more electronic components are being put into an ever-decreasing area. Eventually, this trend in miniaturisation will reach its current physical limits and come to an end. Looking to the future, the semi-conductor industry will need a new 'small' technology - nanotechnology - if it is to continue the exponential progress.

Nature is the best example of how to construct nanosize devices. Biological systems operate in the nano-world and rely on self-organisation and self-assembly. Thus biomolecules would provide an ideal tool for the pre-programmed self-assembly of nanoscale electronic devices. 'Biomolecule driven assembly of nanoparticle based electronic devices' or BIOAND is a 'Nanotechnology Information Devices' project in the Information Society Technologies programme of the European Commission's Fifth Framework Programme. Rather than fabricate molecular electronic devices, BIOAND will lay the groundwork for this by developing the necessary tools and the basic technology.

Description, impact and results
The project's main aim is to develop self-assembly technology from a bottom-up approach (starting with atoms or molecules) to provide tools for the self-assembly of electronic devices. Metal and semi-conducting nanoparticles will serve as functional units and will be placed at a pre-programmed position on a silicon substrate. Depending on the material properties, the chemically synthesised nanoparticles exhibit different types of electronic properties, e.g. resonant tunnelling effects or single electron blocking behaviour. Crucial to the development of the bottom-up fabrication of nanoelectronic devices is the ability to self-assemble nano-nano interconnects and to connect them to the macroscopic world. For these key challenges different technological approaches are under way including the reproducible formation of nanowires and the use of dendrimeric structures. Similarly, self-assembled nanoparticle arrays using S-layer proteins will be studied as a biomolecular template. Finally, the potential of self-assembly will be shown with three demonstrators, namely a single nanoparticle demonstrator, two closely spaced independently connected nanoparticles, and an array of nanoparticles.

Today, conventional microelectronics use complex lithography procedures in a top-down approach to print an image on the surface of a silicon wafer and step by step to construct a device. In the future this could be replaced by a bottom-up approach constructing complete information processing units by self-assembled or self-organised functional nanostructures. This new technology would not only provide a quantum leap in the further miniaturisation of electronic circuits, but could also make a breakthrough in developing a simpler (and much cheaper) production technology.

A computer chip made from molecular electronic devices produced by self-assembly is the long-term goal. The results of this project will provide the first significant step towards this objective - the basic technology and the necessary tools.

Working partnership
Researchers in the fields of biotechnology, chemistry, material science and microelectronics have pooled their experience and expertise to work in a cross-disciplinary approach on the project. There are six partners from four countries: four universities, one microelectronics research centre and one large electronics company. The Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas - Barcelona (Spain) specialises in pure and applied chemistry and will provide parts of the lock and key technologies being used. The self-assembly technologies will be developed at Sony International (Europe) GmbH (Germany), the Universität Hamburg, the National University of Ireland - Dublin, and the Zentrum für Ultrastrukturforschung - Universität für Bodenkultur Wien (Austria). The S-layer technology is being developed at the Zentrum für Ultrastrukturforschung, and particle synthesis is carried out at Sony International (Europe) GmbH.

Universität Hamburg and the National University of Ireland - Dublin. The National Microelectronics Research Centre (University College Cork, Ireland) will provide expertise in the characterisation of electronic components and develop smart electrical test structures and theoretical modelling charge transport through nanoparticles-molecular interfaces.

Project Co-ordinator
Jurina Wessels
Sony International (Europe) GmbH
Hedelfinger Strasse 61, 70327 Stuttgart, Germany
Tel: +49 711 5858 572 - Fax: +49 711 5858 484

Counting on a molecule

Nanoelectronics could provide the solution to current limitations in reducing the size of computer chips. However, before devices such as molecule-sized transistors can be used to build a much smaller and faster chip, their electronic and mechanical behaviour needs to be studied further and better understood.

Since the invention of the transistor, and the subsequent integration of all electronic components in a single 'chip', efforts to miniaturise these devices have been ongoing. Eventually, features of electronic circuits will become so small that the top-down approach of nanofabrication will be both impractical and very expensive. The solution could be molecular electronic devices. These would make use of a the bottom-up approach where large molecular structures are synthesised from atomic or molecular building blocks.

A project entitled 'Bottom-up Nanomachines' or BUN is based on a successful 'Nanotechnology Information Devices' project (Nanowires) which examined the fabrication and properties of wires down to the molecular dimension. The new project, which is part of the Information Society Technologies programme in the European Commission's Fifth Framework Programme, will study the electronic and mechanical properties of single molecules in order to develop a Single Molecular Device (SMD) as an electronic component and later intramolecular circuits as a nanomachine.

Description, impact and results
BUN explores the possibilities of synthesising and assembling a computing nanomachine from a bottom-up approach: it will design and test molecular devices and circuits so as to find appropriate molecular systems for building an information-processing machine.

Under specific conditions electrons can travel along a molecular wire by quantum tunnelling. Based on this physical principle, a molecule-equivalent to the transistor will be designed, tested and integrated within electronic circuits. Fabrication processes will be developed for the metallic interconnections - the wires that connect each component - and for the techniques required to produce and to position the molecular devices precisely on the circuit.

Two types of novel electronic devices will be built. The first, involving a hybrid of nanotechnology and microelectronics technologies, comprises one single molecule per transistor within a "traditional electrical circuit surrounding". The molecule's regular pattern is generated by self-assembly or self-organisation - where the molecule spontaneously organises within the surrounding structure. The circuit connections or wiring will be made by using either metallic nanowires or carbon nanotubes to transport the current.

For such a hybrid device the functional molecule must first be produced and then associated to other devices to complete the circuit. An individual planar hybrid molecular transistor has been demonstrated but, as might be expected with such a novel device, its performance is not yet optimal for circuit applications. In addition, a major problem concerns how a whole circuit should be put together to ensure that it has the correct electrical multiple interconnections or fan-out to design complex logic circuits.

The information obtained by exploring these architecture problems with those first hybrid molecular devices will be also useful for designing the second "mono-molecular" type. This will be a single molecular device in which all the electronic functions are to be integrated within just one large molecule, to reduce the number of connections and the amount of nanofabrication required. Here the molecular design - and its synthesis - is as important as the architecture.

During the project, nanofabrication techniques involving Scanning Tunnelling Microscopy and Atomic Force Microscopy, in combination with new nanolithography techniques, will be employed and developed. They will then be used to manipulate this single supramolecule on an insulating surface in an effort to achieve a better understanding of both its intramolecular mechanical and electrical behaviour when interconnected to multiple nanoscale connection areas or nanopads.

Working partnerships
There are seven research groups from six European countries participating in the project. The molecular design, chemical synthesis, molecular imaging and testing of the hybrid transistor and circuits are being carried out by CNRS (CEMES and LPPM) (France), Christian-Albrechts-Universität (Germany), University of Aarhus (Denmark) and the University of Cambridge and University College London, both in the United Kingdom. IBM (Switzerland) will provide circuit and processor architecture expertise together with the study of intramolecular circuits on a single molecule basis.

Project Co-ordinator
Christian Joachim
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique - CEMES
29 Rue Jeanne Marvig, 31055 Toulouse, France
Tel: + 33 5 62 25 78 35 - Fax: + 33 5 62 25 79 99

Shaping carbon to be more reactive

The surface area of carbon can be made much greater and nearly 100% active through nanofabrication. The resulting cheaper and more efficient nanomaterials can be used in energy storage applications such as super-capacitors, batteries and fuel cells for electrical cars.

Carbon has been used as an electrode in battery systems for many years. Carbon electrodes rely on the high internal surface area of porous carbon. However, most (over 90%) of the surface is ineffective and does not support electrochemical reactions. In contrast, carbon nanostructures - such as nanotubes which are long, thin and capped cylinders of interlinked carbon atoms - have a more controllable porosity and can give a fully active surface area up to 3 000 m2/g, which is 10 to 100 times that of the current carbon (graphite-like) material in use.

A three-year 'Growth Programme' project entitled 'Carbon nanostructures and nanotubes for energy storage, electrochemistry and field emission applications' is being carried out under the European Commission's Fifth Framework Programme. It will develop an industrial-scale manufacturing system for carbon films with huge surface areas and promote specific applications in short and long-term energy storage.

Description, impact and results
The carbon nanostructures will be produced using the arc process. During the cluster-assembly vacuum technique an electric arc is discharged between two carbon rods in an inert atmosphere and a carrier gas is blown through the arc. Clusters of carbon atoms come off in balls of 100 atoms, are carried by the gas, and land on a cold surface where they condense. They then grow into 'fluffy' poles known as carbon nanotubes. The project objectives include controlling the surface area of carbon nanostructures and embedding them in polymer films to give very high useful surface areas for electrochemical processes. An industrial production technology will be developed by scaling-up the existing small-scale methodology to large-scale production and industrial scale.

The resulting films will be used to make super-capacitors with high energy and power densities, for use in electric vehicles including electric trains. All electric trains have a heavy-duty capacitor - a super-capacitor to control their speed. Storing the electrical charge on the surface of the carbon can reduce the size and weight of this capacitor. The existing market for super-capacitors in electric trains is around 20 million euro annually, while the market for capacitors in electric vehicles could amount to 250 euro per car, totalling in the region of 100 million euro annually, once various technical problems have been overcome.
The nanostructured carbon will also be developed into efficient electrode materials to improve electrochemical reactivity. These electrodes will be used in a unique regenerative fuel cell (RFC) technology for bulk electricity storage which can be used in electricity generating plants to increase their efficiency and hence minimise use of resources and emission of pollutants. The long-term market in Europe for bulk storage is massive at about 60 billion euro annually.
The first carbon nanostructures have now been produced and their suitability as super-capacitors is being tested.

Working partnership
The project brings together six partners from three EU countries. The consortium involves three universities: Milan University (Italy) will optimise the synthetic routes for carbon nanomaterials; the University of Fribourg will make nanomats from the tubes and guide the scale-up of the coating system; and Cambridge University will characterise the carbon structures and develop their applications. In addition, there are three companies: National Power (United Kingdom), a large electricity generating utility, will develop and test the carbon films as electrode materials for energy storage; Montena Components (Switzerland), a medium-sized manufacturer of capacitors, will develop super-capacitors using nanostructured carbon; and an SME, Microcoat, which manufactures vacuum-coating systems, will build an industrial-scale coating system for the carbon nanomaterials.

Project Co-ordinator
John Robertson
Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge
Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 IPZ, United Kingdom
Tel: +44 1223 3332 689 - Fax: +44 1223 332 662

Turning polymer holes into metal shields

Filling nanosized holes in polymer membranes with various combinations of metals or with other polymers can produce nanocomposite materials with tailor-made electrical, magnetic or chemical properties. Such materials can be used as screening materials for shielding microwave ovens and mobile phones, or as the active sensing material in 'artificial noses' and 'lab-on-a-chip' sensors.

Nanocomposites are materials which consist of a host material (in this case a polymer) in which a nanosized filler component is dispersed. The filler may be another polymer, a metal, or a magnetic material, etc. The enormous choice of combinations of host and filler materials offers real potential in obtaining novel composite materials with unique and tailored properties.

A previous European Union project developed methods for producing polymer membranes containing metal nanostructures as fillers. These results will be followed up in a new Growth Programme project which has been initiated under the Commission's Fifth Framework Programme. Entitled 'Conductive nanowires for applications in microwave, magnetic and chemical sensing devices based on polymer track-etched templates', it will study new nanocomposites and develop specific applications for these novel materials.

Description, impact and results
The production of these materials starts with the bombardment of a polymer sheet with energetic heavy ions, accelerated by a cyclotron. The heavy ions pass through the sheet and leave miniscule damage tracks. By chemical etching, these tracks are turned into holes with diameters in the 10 to 100 nanometer range. These polymer membranes can now be made with a well-controlled pore size and shape in the form of regular, periodic arrays. The polymer sheets with nanosized holes are used for filtration, and are currently utilised in the ultra-filtration market as molecular filters for biological applications such as water purification.

The next production step is to fill the nanosized holes with organic or inorganic material, such as a different polymer or a metal. This is done by electrochemical deposition. For example, an electrically conductive polymer may be deposited to obtain nanotubules with enhanced conductivity. Filling the nanoholes with a magnetic material such as iron, cobalt or nickel - or a combination of these metals - produces membranes with unique magnetic properties. During this project, various combinations of polymers and metals will be tried in various host polymers.

The application of the membranes with filled holes depends on the nature of the filler. Fillers involving magnetic metals have potential in the area of magnetic data storage, for example for hard disks. Other metallic fillers lead to materials with strong selective absorption for certain wavelengths of electro-magnetic radiation. These may be used for the shielding of microwave ovens or mobile telephones. Fillers of electrically conductive polymers may be employed in the production of the sensing elements of chemical detectors. They may be used in 'electronic noses', or in miniaturised 'lab-on-chip' systems, for example for the detection of biochemical reactions.

Working partnership
The project team comprises six partners from four countries: two universities, one research centre and two companies has brought together theoretical and applied physicists, chemists and biologists from academia and industry.
The Université Louis Pasteur and CNRS-Orsay (both in France) will provide the expertise in theoretical physics and magnetism. The preparation of the membranes and nanocomposites, and their characterisation, will be carried out by the Université Catholique de Louvain (Belgium) which, along with the Institut für Polymerforchung Dresden (Germany), supplied the polymer science and technology knowledge. Epigem (United Kingdom) and Thomson CSF (France) will study the wide range of potential applications of these novel materials: filters, magnetic storage, shielding, and chemical sensing.

Project Co-ordinator
Roger Legras
Université Catholique de Louvain - POLY- PCPM
Croix du Sud 1, 1348 Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium
Tel: +32 10 473 562 - Fax: +32 10 451 593

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Current applications
Potential for the future
Nanotechnology in Europe
European Research Area
Trans-Atlantic co-operation on nanotechnology
Major EU-funded nanotechnology projects

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