Like every great technological epoch, the nanotech revolution appears unstoppable.
The companies and societies that adapt best will thrive. Those that don’t will perish. Fortunately, Australia’s research institutions and cutting edge companies are awake to this reality. They are developing the next generation of products, fiddling with the bricks and mortar of matter to produce super-strong tennis racquets, permanent contact lenses, bone-healing glue, and many other dazzling nanovations.
Catherine Kerstjens take a closer look.
ONE FLU OVER
The invention of the world’s first treatment for all strains of influenza, by Australian scientists no less, is certainly not something to sneeze at.
“The flu virus has long been a problem because it mutates rapidly,” says CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Malcolm McIntosh. “This means that humans are not able to develop immunity to the virus and existing vaccines quickly become ineffective”
The exciting discovery that a small part of the influenza virus is exactly the same in every wild strain of flu that’s ever been found led scientists to formulate the anti-viral drug, Relenza.
According to project scientists Dr Peter Coleman and Dr Jose Varhese, “Everything you’ve taken so far is a symptom-relief medicine. Relenza also relieves the symptoms of influenza, but it does so by attacking the virus and not the symptoms themselves.”
Inhaled, the drug targets the virus and stops it from spreading, reducing the duration and severity of the symptoms if consumed soon after infection.
But don’t be fooled, this was no overnight success story. Pooling the resources and skills of scientists across the country (from CSIRO, Australian National University and Monash University, among others), Relenza was the result of a shared goal to make the flu uncommon.
After eight years of testing, the drug was proven to work without any side effects.
Relenza is now used globally, and its design is being appropriated to fi ght other diseases.
“The same successful approach is continuing in a number of exciting CSIRO projects. We’ve got a number of diseases in our sights, including diabetes, hepatitis and cancer,” says Dr McIntosh.
The flu season has been declared open, but these scientists are standing guard at the front line.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
Australian scientists have taken sight unseen as the inspiration for developing a long life contact lens that could eliminate the need for glasses.
“Almost two thirds of the world’s population requires some form of vision correction,” says Associate Professor Deborah Sweeney from the Cooperative Research Centre for Eye Research and Technology. “The development by our research team of the right polymer — optically clear, porous and biostable — has made the long-term implant possible.”
Thanks to the vision of CSIRO research scientists (as participants in the CRCERT initiative), recipients of the synthetic polymer implant could be seeing in the not so foggy future.
“A successful implant may have a life of between ten and twenty years,” says Sweeney. “The lens itself is biostable — that is, it has no reaction to its living environment — and does not absorb anything from the surrounding material. It is also porous, allowing the necessary passage of liquids and nutrients to and from the eye.”
The lens can be surgically implanted just under the top surface of the cornea (the clear covering at the front of the eye) courtesy of its special adhesive back. The procedure is relatively straightforward, less invasive than corrective laser surgery and more instantaneous than following a rabbit’s diet of carrots.
“It is in fact quite a simple surgical operation which can be finished in twenty minutes. It is also — if necessary — an easily reversible procedure,” says Deborah Sweeney.
With clinical trials of the technique expected to start within two years, this is certainly an innovation worth keeping in focus.
I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW
Michael Harvey is an inventor with his head out of the clouds. The Queenslander has discovered, quite by accident, a coating technology that could see fogged-up mirrors become a thing of the past.
“We were trying to develop low cost anti-reflection coatings, but the anti-fogging property came out as a very welcome by-product,” says Harvey.
This incidental breakthrough has led to the development of XeroCoat, a permanent solution to the many and varied fog related nuisances. From mirrors, to glasses, goggles and car windscreens, XeroCoat is clearing the way for picture perfect vision.
“The tiny nanoscopic pores are really at the heart of XeroCoat’s anti-fogging behaviour. Normally, fogging occurs because tiny water droplets form on the surface of glass or a mirror. XeroCoat’s tiny nanoscopic pores suck in water so that it can’t form on the surface,” says Harvey.
Naturally, the nanotechnology is also being applied in its original form to eliminate reflection, with possible applications including museum display windows, glasshouses and solar cells.
Since forming in 2004, the company’s technology has generated significant interest. It was recognised as a finalist at the 2004 Yellow Pages Business Ideas Grants and received a grant from Queensland’s Sustainable Energy Innovation Fund.
This grant is being used to harness XeroCoat’s anti-reflection capabilities and increase the efficiency of solar cells.
“In this application, the coating is being used to cut down unwanted reflections from the surface of the solar cell. Any light that’s reflected away from a solar cell can’t be absorbed and turned into electricity, so the anti-reflection coating actually improves its efficiency,” says Harvey.
XeroCoat’s multi-functionality and cost-efficiency is sending a direct ‘keep clear’ message to its competitors. So the next time you reach for a mirror and ask ‘who’s the fairest of them all?’ the only thing distorting your impression might be your vanity.
Even the legendary John McEnroe back in his tempestuous heyday would have struggled to make a dent on a new super-strong nano racquet being made possible thanks to research at the Australian National University (ANU).
‘The Mac’ was infamous for turning almost every racquet into kindling following adverse line calls. But even the awesome McEnroe temper would have been no match for the awesome strength of nanotechnology.
“Ask any tennis player if they would like a racquet that is ten times as strong but no heavier than their existing racquets and I expect they would probably say yes,” says Dr Ying Chen, senior fellow at the ANU’s Research School of Physical Sciences and Engineering.
Dr Chen’s research team has devised a new method of producing nanoscopic carbon tubes. The technique will enable carbon nanotubes to be produced in larger quantities, reducing the $3 million price tag that first accompanied a nanotube tennis racquet.
“Carbon nanotubes are far stronger than steel and ten times stronger than the carbon fibres that currently make up a tennis racquet. Compared with other synthesis methods, our technique of producing carbon nanotubes has the advantages of large quantity production and low cost,” explains Dr Chen.
This pioneering technique relies on a ball milling process that involves the mechanical grinding of cheap graphite powder and the heating of the pre-treated materials at controlled temperatures.
Its manufacturing applications extend to other pieces of sporting equipment, primarily golf clubs, and may be used in the construction of cars in the future.
While the breakthrough has reduced the costs associated with manufacturing nanotubes, Dr Chen concedes that it will take time for the technology to become accessible to the wider public.
“As production scales increase, the costs will come down — just as costs have come down for carbon fibre products, ” says Dr Chen.
As the ANU’s research breakthrough suggests, nanotechnology is serving up a range of product innovations that are acing the conventional competition. It’s enough to send the opposition screaming to the umpire.
THROUGH THE NANO-GLASS
By Vanessa Keys
People who live or work surrounded by large amounts of glass can finally breathe a sigh of relief. The unbearable ‘greenhouse effect’ will soon be a thing of the past thanks to the work of two Australian scientists.
Professor Geoff Smith and his postgraduate student Stefan Schelm from Sydney’s University of Technology (UTS) have developed a form of nanoglass that allows rooms to stay cool and bright during the summer months.
While this is not the first of its kind, it is the most economical nanoglass developed to date, allowing smaller offices and homes to block out the sweltering heat.
The high temperatures found inside rooms with large windows are set to be a thing of the past. Professor Smith and Mr Schelm devised a new form of glass; one that allows sunlight in but blocks out the extremes of heat.
The scientists explained the concept of their nanoglass in a recent issue of Applied Physics Letters. Instead of using silver as the shield, as is done in other forms of the glass, plastic is the secret weapon. Infused with nano particles of lanthanum hexaboride, the plastic is sandwiched between two plates of glass and absorbs infra-red radiation without stealing the natural light.
The only downside is that the glass displays a slight green-blue tinge. However, Stefan Schelm believes that, by adjusting the size of the nano-particles, the glass could one day be crystal clear.
No more sweltering offices. No more air conditioners rattling away on overdrive. The nanofuture will be cool and bright, with only some intelligently assembled molecules separating you from nature’s harsh elements.
Sticks and stones may break our bones, but CSIRO has just the remedy.
“Our synthetic polymer can be used as a glue to fix fractured bones,” says CSIRO Molecular Science’s Dr Thilak Gunatillake, one of the inventors. “The glue provides scaffolding for the healing to occur, but it is also designed to break down inside the body once the healing process is over.”
Dr Gunatillake claims that the distinct advantages of its revolutionary polymer rest on its “injectability, adhesiveness and excellent mechanical strength”. Not to mention its favourable comparison to the current technology, which requires surgeons to use pins, screws and plates to piece bones back together.
Designed to break down as the bone regrows, the polymer can be formulated as an injectable gel that cures on-demand by promoting tissue growth. Its rate of degradation can also be controlled, eliminating the need for follow-up surgery to remove pins that accompany the existing procedure.
And that’s just the bare bones of it. According to CSIRO Molecular Science chief, Dr Annabelle Duncan, “Synthetic polymers offer a number of advantages over ceramic and natural polymer-based materials. We envisage that this synthetic polymer technology could be tailored for applications in orthopaedics, orthodontics, drug delivery, wound care, tissue engineering and cartilage repair.”
With the establishment of PolyNovo Biomaterials, a ‘joint’ venture between the CSIRO and Xceed Biotechnology, further research is planned to demonstrate the polymer’s ability to deliver cells or biological agents to accelerate tissue regrowth.
PolyNovo is hoping to conduct the first clinical use of its technologies within three to five years. We can finally say ‘ break a leg!’ … and mean it.
A MODEL EXAMPLE OF NANOTECHNOLOGY
By Vanessa Keys
It might seem like an unusual association — a glamorous beauty with a big smile and nanotechnology — but Aussie supermodel Megan Gale has joined forces with Perth-based suncare company Ganehill, to develop a revolutionary new range of suncare products, Invisible Zinc SPF 30+
OK, so Ms Gale didn’t substitute the catwalk for the lab, but she’s an expert when it comes to skincare creams. “I wanted a high-protection product that I could wear every day on my face and body — without overloading my skin with chemicals,” says Gale. “I remember wearing Zinc on my nose as a child and how it was the only thing that really stopped me turning red.”
But gone are the days of florescent zinc stripes, and there isn’t much work for a supermodel painted from head to toe in white zinc. The solution was one of scale. Ganehill collaborated with nanotech research company, Advanced Powder Technology (APT), who produced Zinc Oxide (the powerful UV-blocking agent in conventional zinc cream) in nanoparticle size from the micro to the nanometre scale. This type of Zinc turns clear when rubbed on the skin.
The result of this collaboration is Invisible Zinc — a worldfirst nanotechnology product resulting in a clear, non-allergenic zinc oxide-based sun product that doesn’t contain any chemical blocking agents.
Gale was suitably impressed and threw her considerable marketing clout behind the product. Prior to creating the Invisible Zinc and Megan Gale Suncare brands with her husband Adil Bux, Ganehill’s Andrea Horwood was creator and publisher of Australian Style magazine.
Invisible Zinc’s cost is comparable to conventional sunscreen/moisturiser products. Ganehill currently exports Megan Gale Suncare to several countries, and it is stocked in the exclusive department stores SpaceNK (UK) and La Rinascente (Italy). Ganehill is also working with a number of Australian nanotech companies to develop new nanotech beauty brands for export.
It’s yet another example of the growing and varied influence nanotechnology is gaining in society. When one of the most visible people on earth is getting excited about invisible technology, it’s time to take a closer look.
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