Mimicking Nature’s Nanotechnology: From a butterfly wing to anti-counterfeit technologies

Have you ever wondered where the inspiration behind new technologies comes from? We don’t have to go too far to find out; it is enough to just look out the window!

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.
-Albert Einstein

Yes, nature is out there, standing as a giant laboratory of science and engineering!1 For centuries now, we have been trying to understand nature’s strategies and apply what we learn from them to solve our modern problems. One of our previous posts, “Nature’s nanotechnology, bio-mimicry, and making the superpowers of your dreams a reality,” discusses various nature-inspired solutions to these daily problems. It is really fascinating to realize that scientists are inspired by shark skin, flower leaves or butterfly wings! In this post, we’re going to dig a little deeper into the science behind one of these: let’s explore the science behind the striking colors of butterfly wings and how imitating them has helped us to develop anti-counterfeit technologies.


A blue morpho butterfly.          image source

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A Science Journalist Ventures Into the Lab

Guest Post by Zachary Vasile

It can be difficult to record exactly how a writer thinks. This is not to mystify the brain of a writer, but to say that we often reason in incredibly convoluted and abstract ways, leaping from one thing to another, working in undisciplined bursts when the spirit takes us.

And herein lies the problem with science writing. Scholarly scientific articles should be, by all logical reckoning, the exact opposite of the artistic, writerly sensibility. Writing about science for non-scientists — unless it is going to be an unbearably dense and indecipherably technical tome — should be a paradox in terms. How can the deductive and detective rigidities of the scientific code be ordered in the shambled, distracted brain of the work-a-day wordsmith?

The solution to this problem — at least as far as I can see — is in a double dose of discomfort. For one, the scientists and academics of this world must be able to scale back their experience and remove the “blinders” that their immense knowledge has given them. They might not realize that the terms and processes they are familiar with are largely unknown to the world outside of their labs. They need to recognize that the average American knows no more of science than the most basic of terms and formulas, if that. The second dose of discomfort is to be swallowed by the writers: we need to do our homework. It is, quite simply, immature and lazy for reporters and writers, no matter their stripe, to not educate themselves before stepping into a story. There’s no reason to cram in five years of annotated med school, but we need to come to the party prepared with the basic language.


The Geiger Group at Northwestern University, who hosted my foray into nanoscience.   image source

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How Do Scientists Understand the Cell Membrane?

One of the primary goals of the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology is to understand what happens when nanomaterials are exposed to biological systems like organisms or even cells. How can we do this? You may think back to an introductory biology class and recall a few buzz words about cells, like endoplasmic reticulum, vesicles, and cell membrane. All of these different components serve important functions within the cell, but the cell membrane (the outermost part of the cell) is the key to understanding how the cell interacts with nanoparticles. The cell membrane  can even inform us about more complex interactions, such as between nanoparticles and whole organisms.


Diagram of a cell.      image source

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2014: Sustainable Nano Year in Review

It seems like everyone in the world is cranking out a year-end summary today, and we at the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology and Sustainable-Nano.com are no exception! WordPress compiled a handy annual stats report for us, which you can read in its entirety here. A few highlights:

Our site was visited about 66,000 times this year, and the busiest day of the year was May 1st with 469 views. That day’s post was “Solar Roads: the Science, Potential, and Lingering Questions” by doctoral student Julianne Troiano. We wrote 49 new posts this year altogether (this one makes 50) and readers visited our site from 168 different countries!


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Publication Summary: Charge and Gold Nanoparticle Toxicity

This post is the first in what we hope will be an ongoing series of public-friendly summaries describing research articles that have been published by members of the Center for Sustainable NanotechnologyJared Bozich, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, was the first author on this paper and was eager to take on the challenge of boiling it down into a three-paragraph summary. He says, “As the disconnect between science and technology and the public increases with the rapid advancements in these fields, it is important that we make this knowledge accessible. This allows the public to weigh in on scientific breakthroughs and the potential hazards associated with them, so that they may make informed decisions about the products they choose to consume, or have a well-educated voice on issues at public hearings involving propositions on regulations of these technologies.”

The article was published in March 2014 in the journal Environmental Science: Nano.1

Spherical gold nanoparticle. image modified from Bozich et al., Creative Commons License

Spherical gold nanoparticle. image modified from Bozich et al., Creative Commons License

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There’s plenty of room at the bottom… for ART!

What do you need if you want to create an art piece that is not visible to our bare eyes? For ages, visual artists have invented tools for manipulating various materials to shape their reflections of the world into art pieces that we can appreciate with our eyes: paintings, sculptures, and installations arts. Sometimes it requires thousands of workers and tons of materials to create a giant art piece, such as the Statue of Liberty, a world-wide recognized masterpiece of sculpture and a symbol of the United States. But sometimes it only asks for a grain of sand, a pair of hands or a programmed computer, and a cutting-edge microscope.


From left to right: (1) “Chrysanthemum”. Magnification: 75,000X. Huigao Duan, MIT. (2) “There’s plenty of room at the bottom…TO PARTYYY!” Magnification: 100,000X. Joel Yang, MIT. (3) “The Bodhi Tree”. Magnification: 5715X. Mohan Ananth, Carl Zeiss NTS. Reprinted with permission from Zyvex Labs.

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Nanorobots can play nanosoccer and a whole lot more

In the excitement of the FIFA World Cup last summer, I found myself asking, “does soccer relate to nanotechnology in any way?” After doing some research, my honest answer is, not really.

However, while doing my research, I did discover that researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology are playing “nano soccer games” to test the capabilities of recent advances in nanorobotics. The soccer game included moving a soccer ball no larger than the width of a human hair around on a soccer field smaller than a grain of rice. Not sure who to root for, but I found this footage to be very amusing (see video below).

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