November 18, 2019
Director's Column

Thinking Small. PNNL Focuses on Tiny Particles to Fight Global Problems Like Cancer

Originally Published in the Tri-City Herald on November 18th, 2019

PNNL’s nanomaterials research ranges from understanding the basic properties of materials to developing specialized nanomaterials for specific applications, such as this material containing millions of tiny nanotubes that offer a promising approach to targeted medical treatments.

Andrea Starr | PNNL

Researchers at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are developing tiny solutions for some of today's largest challenges.

From understanding the basic properties of nanomaterials thousands of times thinner than a human hair to developing nanomaterials with unique and useful properties, their research could lead to big outcomes in a variety of fields.

For instance, researchers at PNNL and Washington State University developed nanotubes inspired by nature for a precision, non-toxic cancer treatment. The team engineered nanotubes made from organic materials with fluorescent dyes and cancer-targeting molecules.

PNNL researchers are developing and testing nanoparticles—specifically designing the tiny materials with properties that may make catalysts react faster, last longer or cost less.

When tested on lung cancer cells, researchers showed the nanotubes could efficiently deliver a chemotherapy and a photodynamic therapy directly to the tumor cells. In addition, the nanotubes can help track the drugs' performance.

Promising results revealed that the patent-pending technology is highly effective — killing lung cancer cells at lower doses and causing less damage to surrounding healthy cells than other treatments.

On the energy front, PNNL researchers are testing nanomaterials with special acoustic properties that could be used to enhance detection of valuable hydrocarbons or to monitor fluids injected underground to facilitate carbon dioxide storage.

Today, industry uses seismic imaging to map the subsurface, sending low-frequency sound waves deep below the surface and analyzing the weakened and difficult-to-detect return signals.

To aid this approach, PNNL scientists designed nanomaterials that alter the amplitude and frequency of the sound waves that hit them underground. The changes enhance the contrast in the return signals, making them easier to detect and analyze.

Another example of PNNL's research focuses on materials that work like tiny magnets to separate and extract critical materials from water sources at geothermal power plants or oil and gas production facilities.

Scientists designed and carefully constructed what are known as metal organic frameworks to maximize the material's surface area and selectivity.

Their innovations may make it possible to cost-effectively separate and recover elements, such as lithium, and rare earth metals, like yttrium, europium, neodymium and dysprosium, that are critical to many electronics and industrial processes.

Smaller, more efficient

Similarly, PNNL researchers have developed porous metal organic frameworks that could lead to smaller, more efficient and more economical adsorbent cooling systems powered by waste heat.

They are engineering the nanomaterial's structure so that pores store large amounts of refrigerant gases. As a bonus, the material's properties pair well with new sensors to detect leaks in cooling systems.

PNNL scientists also are studying the potential effects of nanomaterials on the environment and human health.

Beginning with a solid material that mimics naturally occurring proteins, PNNL materials scientist Chun-Long Chen and his colleagues create gel-like materials that contain millions of tiny nanotubes that could deliver targeted cancer treatment directly to tumor cells.

They are learning about how nanoparticles enter the human body and interact with molecules and cells in biological systems — helping determine the compatibility or toxicity of certain nanoparticles used in consumer products such as pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and electronics.

At the same time, our scientists advance fundamental nanoscience by developing an understanding of how manipulating single atoms affects the physical properties and performance of materials that are literally built one atom at a time.

One effort focuses on producing thin films from atomically precise layers of lithium cobalt oxide that could be used in lithium-ion batteries.

Another seeks to understand how particles assemble into crystals with complicated shapes. Using high-powered microscopes, scientists are determining how particles attract and repel each other so they can be manipulated into structures that may be useful in photovoltaics and catalysis.

As you can see, there are myriad applications for nanomaterials — and these are just a few of our exciting projects.

In a world where bigger is often better, PNNL is taking a contrarian view. By delving into the world of the tiniest particles, our scientists are developing new materials with gigantic impact.

Published: November 18, 2019