Using Nano/Micromachines to Help Clean Up Oil Spills

One of the largest oil spills in recent history happened in April 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank, resulting in the blowout of the Macondo well located approximately 66 km off the Louisiana coast. Oil spills, or the accidental release of liquid petroleum into the environment, pose a major concern to the health of natural ecosystems. Marine oil spills are known to injure and kill sea birds, heavily furred mammals, and marine organisms including shellfish, corals, and dolphins. There are various sources of oil spills including tank vessels, pipelines, and directly from facilities.


Brown Pelicans covered in oil, Grand Isle, Louisiana, June 3, 2010. image by the International Bird Rescue Research Center

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Is triclosan safe? What you should know about this antibacterial chemical

Back in January, I wrote a post about the potential hazards of traditional cleaning chemicals. Based on questions and comments from friends and family, I am going to continue on that path, this time focusing on the antibacterial chemical triclosan. Triclosan gained some media attention earlier this year when a law was passed in Minnesota to ban it from soaps and cleaning products.

Triclosan is the active antimicrobial ingredient in many products, but some are concerned with its use Image source:

I recommend you check your labels for active ingredients. This soap contains triclosan. Image source

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Keeping Our Food Safe – Nanomaterial Style

From reading this blog, you may know that nanomaterials are becoming more and more prevalent in the products that we use on a regular basis. What you may not realize is that nanomaterials are also becoming a growing part of our food packaging.  In this post, I’m going to explore a few ways in which nanomaterials might be used in food packaging to improve packaging properties and to more accurately determine a product’s shelf life.

Biodegradable packaging helps reduce the waste in our landfills and elsewhere, but biodegradable plastics have been a challenging choice for food packaging in the past for several reasons. Experts have written that these materials aren’t as strong or heat resistant as other, more commonly used plastics, air and water can get through them more easily, and they can be difficult to work with.1 On the bright side, there are nanomaterials being developed for use in plastics for food packaging that can help get around some of these problems. Scientists are working hard to develop these nanocomposites to be biodegradable and still usable in food packaging.2


Creating biodegradable plastics for food packaging can be tricky.   image source

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How do Scientists Study Complex Chemical Systems?

Much of our work in the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology lies in the realm of chemistry. That is to say, our work seeks to understand phenomena at the molecular level. For example, we want to know what molecules we can add to the surface of a nanoparticle to control how stable it is and how it interacts with cells. But how exactly do we tackle problems in chemistry?

To address molecular-level questions like these, we conduct experiments using instruments that can probe the characteristics of molecules. Molecules are the smallest units of most chemicals—many being smaller than the nano-scale, around 1 billionth of a meter. Some instruments that we use provide direct information about molecules, like how they rotate, vibrate, absorb and emit energy. Other instruments that we use don’t necessarily provide direct information about molecules, but they allow us to visualize things much closer to the scale of molecules than we otherwise can.

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Happy Mole Day from the CSN!

co-authors: Mimi Hang & Marco Torelli

The word mole is one of those crazy words that have multiple meanings that can sometimes lead to confusion.  Perhaps your first thought after hearing the word is a cute little animal that burrows in the ground.  Or maybe your mind jumps to the small growths on your chin.  Or if it’s food you’re into, the delicious sauce you put on your enchiladas may be the first thing that you think of.  But for us scientists, a mole is actually a unit of measure that we use daily. And today just happens to be the most important day for the mole – Mole Day!  Yahooooooo!  It’s a day celebrated every year on October 23rd from 6:02 a.m. until 6:02 p.m. Seems pretty specific, right?  Well, let’s explore what this unit actually is…

a happy mole

Happy Mole Day! image source

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Nobel 2014: What makes super-resolution microscopy so super?

The awarding of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Dr.s Betzig, Hell, and Moerner (my former research mentor) is a tremendous event! It is almost as tremendous as their scientific targets are tiny: they were awarded the prize for super-resolution fluorescence microscopy, a technique for using a light microscope to examine objects as small as tens of nanometers. Dr. Christy Haynes talked about super-resolution microscopy in a recent blog post, so I won’t cover that again here. However, one of the enabling technologies for this year’s prize is the ability to use light to “see” individual molecules. Professor Moerner is a pioneer in what has come to be called “single molecule spectroscopy.” He is a true single-molecule zealot, and as a former trainee in his lab, I’m pretty much a single-molecule zealot as well. In this post, I hope to convince you that studying individual molecules is worth being zealous about.

Nobel Medal awarded to Normal Angell in 1933

Nobel Medal awarded to Normal Angell in 1933.              image source

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Teeny Tiny Motors That Fit in Your Body

Imagine tiny gadgets wandering around in your bloodstream, travelling into your cells to seek out infections and fight diseases… Does it sound too fantastic to be true? Let’s explore just how close this science fiction scenario is to a reality.

1 - robot in red blood cells

Before we get too far into this story, let’s first see where the idea of really, really small motors comes from. In 1954, the gifted physicist Richard Feynman issued a $1,000 challenge in his speech at Caltech.1 He offered a big prize to the first person able to create an operating electrical motor smaller than 1/64 inch (about 50 times smaller than a pocket-size flash drive!). Scaling it down was a great challenge since the effect of shrinking the size on the operation of the motor was unpredictable.  But to Feynman’s surprise, shortly after the speech, an electrical engineer built the world’s smallest hand-made machine at the time. The challenge-winning motor, while not quite on the nano-scale, undoubtedly inspired scientists and triggered research on future applications of very small, functioning motors. Continue reading