Nanotechnology: Promise for the future

Nanostructured materials can be designed with sophisticated features to fulfil the complex requirements of advanced material applications. In the fourth instalment of the Sir John Monash Lecture hosted at Monash University Malaysia, Professor Jackie Ying, the executive director of the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore spoke on ‘Nanostructured Materials for Energy and Biomedical Application’ which highlighted the unique properties of various synthesised nanostructured materials.

Nanocrystalline building blocks are used to create excellent materials for catalytic, fuel cell and battery applications. One of the important areas that needs to develop is energy storage, and one of the key challenges is to power electric vehicles. For many countries, their goal is to use electric vehicles and dominate that market 20 years from now.

“Our goal is to develop a cathode material using lithium manganese silicate (Li2MnSiO4). What we are trying to do is create a new method called wet chemistry-associated solid-state reaction,” Professor Ying said.

It starts with a low temperature reaction using the possibility to create a nanocube of manganese carbonate coated with silica. At room temperature, a coating is created to make a core shell nanocube. Then, it is heated to a high temperature in a solid-state reaction to turn it into a hollow nanobox with the right phase of lithium manganese silicate.

“This is the first example of a successful synthesis which was tested for battery application. It was able to achieve high capacity, much higher than the 170 capacity offered by conventional materials. We are now working with a Canadian company in energy storage to scale the synthesis, manufacture, and use it for battery applications,” Professor Ying said.

Professor Ying also described the synthesis of metallic, metal oxide, semiconducting, and organic nanoparticles and nanocomposite of controlled size, morphology and architecture. She also designed and functionalised nanostructured materials for drug delivery, nanomedicine, biosensor, cell culture and tissue engineering applications.

One biomedical application she mentioned involves the delivery of drugs, particularly for cancer patients. The current drug delivery system allows drugs to be carried in the body in such a way that it hopefully targets the specific organs that you are trying to deliver it to but typically, there is no therapeutic effect and the amount used is minimised.

“We are interested in developing drug carriers that have a therapeutic effect. You won’t have to worry about how much is being used, and hopefully, you have the synergistic effect between the carrier and the drug.

“Green tea has this major ingredient called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) which is very useful because it is anti-cancer, anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and anti-ageing. We want to turn this material into a drug carrier,” Professor Ying said.

To formulate EGCG into a micellar nanocomplex to copy drugs, the first is to turn an oligomer and combine a dimer of EGCG with a poly(ethylene glycol). When delivering a therapeutic protein, wrap it in oligomeric EGCG which is designed because it has a greater inhibition of cancer cell growth than EGCG. The second part is a pegylated EGCG that forms the shell of the micelle, allowing the drug to be in circulation inside the body for a long time and target the cancerous tumour.

“This micellar nanocomplex is less than 200 nanometres in dimension and because of the size, it allows the material to be accumulated and the leaky vasculature that is associated with a tumour. This allows us to have a passive targeting of the drug to the tumour cells,” Professor Ying said.

There is so much hype in nanoscience and nanotechnology that Professor Ying believes it is very important to make sure it actually fulfils its promise through the different applications.

“It is important to recognise there is a lot of basic research that needs to be done, but even more important is at the back of the researchers’ minds they know what the ultimate goal is. Why do people focus on research? Because they want to see real applications be developed.

“While it is nice to have nice papers published but we are always mindful that the approach is practical because if it isn’t, it is difficult to be turned into commercial industrial application. So asking the right questions and in our case is always, what problems need to be addressed?” she concluded.

The Sir John Monash Lectures at Monash University Malaysia addresses key issues relevant to stakeholders in the region, including areas such as - sustainability; socioeconomic development; innovation and technology; health and well-being; societal transformation; Islamic economic thought and halal ecosystem; and international understanding.

The  public  lecture series  cover  a  wide  variety  of  contemporary  and multidisciplinary topics. It is presented by high-profile thinkers, international leaders,policy  makers,  corporate  leaders  and  world-class  academicians  and  experts,  who  are distinguished in their areas of expertise and whose work have made a significant  impact to the global community.

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