More than 20 years have passed since the initial announcement of the National Nanotechnology program (NNI). NNI is a federal program founded by President Bill Clinton in 2000 to support the research and development of nanotechnology in American universities, government agencies and industrial laboratories. This is a major financial bet on an area where the public is more familiar with science fiction than scientific achievements. Today, it is clear that NNI has not only influenced the research direction of the United States, but also promoted worldwide efforts and stimulated the creativity explosion of the scientific community. We have reaped rewards not only in medicine, but also in clean energy, environmental remediation and other aspects.
Before NNI, some people thought that nanotechnology was a gimmick. My research career began in chemistry, but in my opinion, nanotechnology is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: opening up a new field of interdisciplinary science. After the NNI, my Northwestern University made a strategic decision to establish an international nanotechnology research institute. At present, the Institute has invested more than US $1 billion in pure nanotechnology research, education projects and supporting infrastructure. Other universities in the United States have made similar investments and established new institutes and interdisciplinary partnerships.
The core of modern nanotechnology research is a very simple principle. When miniaturization or recombination is carried out on the nano scale, bulk materials become new materials. Their characteristics change in strange and wonderful ways. For example, gold nanoparticles are not the shiny yellow we know from rings and medals; According to the size and shape of the rainbow, it can show any color of the rainbow. Through synthetic fine-tuning, chemists have discovered how to make gold prisms, cubes, rods and more strange and complex nanoparticles, which can be blue, green, red or purple.
What does it matter? After all, by the late 1990s, Nano Electronics had powered laptops, cameras and other consumer devices. Chips are getting smaller and more powerful. (therefore, endless stories of nano robot hooligans) without NNI, the miniaturization of electronic devices will continue.
What NNI has done is to move nanotechnology to areas where it has not taken major risks before, such as medical, chemical, optical and transportation industries. In terms of size, nanoscale can be comparable to biological structures such as protein, virus and DNA. This understanding enables us to prepare unique kinds of hybrid nanostructures, which fundamentally change the way we study, track and treat diseases.
In fact, some of the most exciting developments in the past two decades have to do with medicine. Many powerful new diagnostic tools have been developed and commercialized based on nanoprobes. Early nanotechnology research was the basis for rapid testing, which made it possible for schools and society to reopen during the covid-19 epidemic. Many powerful nucleic acid and antigen tests for identifying and diagnosing diseases are based on nanotechnology platforms. In addition, based on the concept of recombination of drugs or vaccine ingredients at nanoscale to make them more effective or able to cross the concept of biological barriers, dozens of new nano drugs are currently or will be used in clinical trials of psoriasis, debilitating cancer, nervous system diseases, eye diseases and even COVID-19 -19. Specifically, spherical nucleic acid is a nanostructure intensively modified by short fragments of DNA or RNA. It is a new form of “life blueprint”. It interacts with life systems in an unprecedented way, so that they can enter and penetrate tissues and be used as powerful new gene drugs. The final component of biological gene editing nano machine crispr-cas9 has been identified, isolated and recombined into drugs. Many of these nanomedical tools are highly modular, allowing rapid development for a variety of different goals.
In addition, as a new way of interdisciplinary or interdisciplinary research at the core of NNI, nanotechnology promotes a new narrative of stem: collaboration. Nanotechnology has attracted the imagination of a generation of material scientists, chemists, physicists and biologists, enabling them to synthesize and understand new materials; And motivate trained engineers to develop tools for manufacturing and operating such structures; And doctors who can use them in clinics. The cooperative nanotechnology research of our institute combines teachers from 32 Departments in four schools of Northwestern University. This diversity of training and perspectives not only broadens the scope of our research. It enables us to identify, understand and solve major problems, and helps us break the barriers between laboratories and markets.
In short, these advances span both fundamentals and applications. For example, quantum dots are nanoscale forms of semiconductors that exhibit size dependent fluorescence. These have become the basis of high-quality TV and display. Chemical frameworks with nanoscale design porosity have become sponges for environmental remediation or gas storage. High performance electron and scanning probe microscopy tools were originally developed to visualize nanostructures, sometimes at the single molecule or atomic level. Now they are used to manufacture millions of position coded nanostructures at the same time, greatly accelerating the discovery of new materials.
Mining “material genome” is an arduous task, which is the combination of all possible elements in the periodic table. For nano materials, when people increase the size and shape, because remembering these structural features now changes the properties and functions, the parameter set is almost endless. Find the ideal materials for a given task through traditional synthesis methods, so that needles and haystacks sound like micro wind.
This is where nanotechnology comes into play. Tools using large-scale parallel nanoscale tip arrays are now being used to build combinatorial “giant libraries” composed of millions of nanostructures, each with a slightly different size, composition and shape. The 2 cm by 2 cm chip supporting the huge library is similar to the gene chip promoting the genomics revolution, but its more functions have reached several orders of magnitude. In fact, a single giant library contains more new inorganic materials than scientists have collectively synthesized and characterized so far.
Therefore, in screening new materials, scientists have identified catalysts to fuel processes in clean energy, automotive and chemical industries. In order to develop the next generation of batteries that can store renewable energy for a long time, or to manufacture fuel cells that can meet the needs of larger and more powerful vehicles, we must find a way to identify and manufacture materials with the characteristics we need. With megalibrary, we can do this quickly and efficiently.
Scientists also use giant libraries to identify structures with important physical properties, such as magnetism, luminescence and high temperature superconductivity. It is worth noting that they are the source of high-quality big data and provide impetus for new discoveries in the field of machine learning and artificial intelligence, which are oriented to material discovery.
We are still a long way from micro robots. Looking back, NNI and its investment in research were turning points that made these achievements possible. More importantly, the vision behind NNI points the way forward, and we can achieve this goal through continuous investment in research and education. It is important for Americans to understand that many of the technologies that define our modern life come from strategic investments such as NNI, which leads to the invention of universities and government laboratories as the technical basis for an important share of industrial innovation and progress.