Kevin Russell is a fourth-year chemistry honours student. He is working in chemistry professor Vicki Meli’s nanotechnology lab. Nanotechnology involves the manipulation of matter with at least one dimension sized from one to one hundred nanometres. To imagine just how small nanotechnology is, one nanometre is one billionth of a metre. To put it on a comparable scale, if a marble were a nanometre, then one metre would be the size of the Earth! Nanotechnology involves the ability to see and control individual atoms and molecules. Nanotechnology is sometimes referred to as general-purpose technology, because it has significant impact on almost all industries and all areas of society.
Meli’s research, however, is focused on the self-assembly of nanoparticles into surface patterns. These surface patterns are useful in a variety of material applications. By synthesizing nanoparticles and mixing with molecular amphiphiles (an example of this would be biological lipids, such as fats and waxes), the aim is to illustrate a mechanism to predictably create nanoparticle arrangements at fluid interfaces (such as air-water and oil-water). The films generated are explored for potential use in applications such as catalysis, energy storage devices, surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy, and liquid crystal devices.
Meli’s research approach involves the use of surface and interfacial phenomena to drive the organization and assembly of nanoparticles. Nanoparticles of gold have interesting catalytic and optical properties. Depending on the particles’ size and shape, they can be synthesized in the lab and used for studies. This is done with the goal of applying the assembly method to a wide variety of nanoparticles (such as nano-wires, tubes, or rods; and magnetic particles). The assembly of the nanoparticles are studied as a function of pressure and temperature. To understand the properties of the synthesized films, scientists use structural characterization, using either atomic force microscopy or electron microscopy. The characterization is required prior to optimization of the films for a specific application.
Russell’s thesis is entitled “The effect of temperature on the interaction of alkanethiol capped gold nanoparticles at the air/water interface mixed with alcohols and fatty acids.” The applications of Russell’s research are biological sensors.
“To be used as sensors, you attach certain ligands (an ion or molecule that binds to an atom to form a coordination complex) to the gold nanoparticle which will interact with what you want to detect,” Russell explains.
“As the ligand and molecule you are detecting interact, changes to the electronic and optical properties of the nanoparticle occur which can be measured and translated into meaningful data.”
Other promising applications to Russell’s research include cell transfection (which is the process of introducing nucleic acids into cells) and drug delivery.
Russell has worked in Meli’s nanotechnology lab since May and enjoys the research he is performing.
“I’m fascinated by the concept and potential applications of nanotechnology, so it’s really cool to be able to do research in such a rapidly developing area,” he explains. He hails from Miramichi, New Brunswick, and has been interested in science since high school. After completion of his degree, Russell plans to attend Dalhousie Medical School.