Saturday, May 25, 2024

With nanotech lab, DOST is making small things a big deal

“Making the invisible, visible,” or “There’s plenty of room at the bottom” are just two of the many ways by which people have gone to lengths in order to describe nanoscience and its end-product — nanotechnology.

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Both colorful idioms of describing this “science of small” refer to the ways researchers manipulate materials in order to come up with a product — the traditional top-down method and the new common of bottom-up approach.

The top-down method produces cutting-edge forms by continuously chipping and removing pieces from a large material. It is similar to creating a sculpture out of a big stone. The method uses much energy, releases toxic chemicals, and generates much waste.

On the other hand, the bottom-up approach is like playing with Lego. Pick and connect desired shapes one by one until one gets the desired form and function. The approach is achieved by molecular assembly techniques.

In 1959, Richard Feynman, an American theoretical physicist, described the process in which scientists of the future would be able to manipulate and control individual atoms of a molecule in a talk called “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” referring to the molecular stage where nano research begins.

Size does matter

Nano as a unit of measurement of length is comparable to similar units like meter. But, exactly how small is nano small?

Just divide a meter into one billion — that is one nanometer. If you would like to play on the comic side of it, try converting an inch into nanometer and you will get 25,400,000 nanometers. Still finding it hard to imagine the quintessential size of a nano? A newspaper page is 100,000 nanometers thick.

Indeed, research exploits that focus on playing this field require very sophisticated equipment and tools. One such is STM or Scanning Tunneling Microscope which IBM invented in 1980 and used to observe the structure of a molecule.

The world, however owes to Norio Taniguchi, a professor of Tokyo University of Science, the earliest efforts on nanotechnology. He coined the term in 1974 to describe work on semiconductor processes such as thin film deposition and ion beam milling on the order of a nanometer.

Today, nanotechnology research mainly consists of the process of separation, consolidation, and re-development of materials by one atom or one molecule.

A Pinoy NanoLab for Juan techies

“At the Industrial Technology Development Institute (ITDI-DOST), our NanoLab is one of the youngest of units providing technical services to our local industries,” Josefina R. Celorico, a supervising science research specialist at the Materials Science Division (MSD) recounted.

“We are pleased to inform you as well that on 1 July 2015, NanoLab will be opened for public viewing. Now our Juan techies can personally appreciate the look and feel of new nano products,” she enthused.

Introduced in 2012 by DOST secretary Mario G. Montejo, NanoLab is one of the very few public nanotechnology research laboratories in the country.

It offers to the public world-class equipment and devices meant to provide nanotechnology-related technical services. By developing materials with structure at the nanoscale, researchers can explore their unique optical, electronic, or mechanical properties.

NanoLab is currently housed at the MSD building where a high-resolution field emission transmission electron microscope (FE-TEM) can be found, a first in the Philippines. FE-TEM can magnify materials up to 1.5 million times and is capable of rapid data acquisition.

There are 19 other high-level machines and gadgets that MSD researchers use in their constant blending and re-development.


Churning the nano mill

Outside of NanoLab’s aseptic walls, the curious may find a variety of sources of nanomaterials, often natural and functional.

Our biological systems boast of these. Foreign researchers may have in fact used any one of these in their studies — wax crystals covering a lotus leaf, or spider and spider-mite silk.

For the really adventurous some may have even used butterfly wing scales, or the horny materials from birds and animals such as skin, claws, beaks, feathers, horns, and hair.

Even our own bones are all natural organic nanomaterials; all of which are uniquely different but difficult to gather to form the critical volume.

Explaining the material type chosen by NanoLab, Celorico said, “We decided to rely on what are abundant, unexploited, and natural organic or inorganic nanomaterials.”

And so the stakes for the ordinary, dull, and everyday nanomaterials have been raised.

Materials like nanoclay from the Bicol Region, cassava and corn starch from your local supplier, and zeolite from Pangasinan have taken the nanoresearch spotlight.

Likewise, Camarines Sur supplies silica or quartz. Further along, the list contains other materials such as natural rubber and halloysite from Mindanao. Calcium carbonate, a substance found in rocks, is also included, among others.


New butter from the mill

It took NanoLab researchers quite some time to bring to the selling table new and extraordinary products.

After the required separation, consolidation, and re-development, Celorico lists the following innovations which are certainly nothing but common.

Suitable for use to address waste management and environmental concerns is fiber membrane/filter to treat heavy metal contaminated water using chitosan (Chitosan is made by treating shells of shrimp and shellfishes.).

As well, industries powered by biogas digesters can profit from the use of nanofiber from zeolite to purify methane gas in methane-running pipelines; impure methane gas causes rapid pipe corrosion.

Construction firms working on skyways, on the other hand, may well wonder at the 20% to 60% increase in loading strength of high-performance concrete due to silica additives. While maintenance/ cleaning of glass walls and metals of high-rise buildings can be low-cost and headache-free with the use of nano titanium dioxide.

To get value for money on infrastructure investments, the new metallic zinc nano silica composite coating for steel-based tools, part and components can improve corrosion resistance.

But for Dr. Marissa A. Paglicawan, supervising science research specialist, an environment champion is their team’s 100 percent biodegradable food cutlery.

Made from corn starch (industrially termed as thermoplastic starch) and polylactic acid or PLA, cutleries are rendered degradable.

“Toxin migration tests conducted by the Packaging Technology Division of ITDI were negative,” Paglicawan related.


She continued that, in lab tests, cutleries degraded from within three to four months at low colony of bacteria and fungi. Those buried in soil with high colony get degraded within a month.

A survey conducted by TESDA in 2014 counted the food services group in the country as totaling 1,093 establishments. It is not hard to imagine the volume of non-biodegradable cutleries and other food packaging materials that they use up and throw away.

These, however, do not just end up in landfills.

In the larger scheme of things, the United Nations Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution (GESAMP) estimated that land-based sources account for up to 80 percent of the world’s marine pollution, 60 to 95 percent of the waste being plastics debris.

According to Claire Le Guern Lytle, a plastic pollution advocate, global plastic consumption worldwide in 2008 was estimated at 260 million tons. Global Industry Analysts reported in 2012 that plastic consumption will reach 297.5 million tons by 2015.

With Paglicawan’s research on biodegradable foamed food containers, food packaging films, and cutlery from corn and cassava starch, it is easy to picture a low- plastics use in the food industry — at least in the country.

The global statistics, however, are mind-boggling and suggest deeper concerns that nanoresearch should address.


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