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USTAR Faculty Make Headway in Nanotech

Written by Vince Horiuchi

They say good things come in small packages, and that certainly is the case when it comes to nano-based research by USTAR professors at the University of Utah.

At the Sorensen Molecular Biotechnology Building, which is home to the Nano Institute of Utah (NIU) and a number of USTAR faculty, researchers are turning to microscopic materials to help push the limits of what scientists can do in medicine, engineering, biology, chemistry and more.

Take Marc Porter, for example. A USTAR professor in chemical engineering and chemistry and NIU’s director, Porter is researching the potential for modified nanoparticles to detect infectious diseases such as tuberculosis or pancreatic cancer. Porter and his colleagues are modifying this nanoscale material with antibodies that can signal any number of markers associated with these and other diseases. But unlike normal tests, this type of nanosensor may be able to identify the illnesses earlier or detect a particular drug-resistant form of the disease.

Porter and his co-workers are also looking into the possibility that magnetic nanoparticles can be used for identifying a disease in a patient in a method similar to how magnetics bits are read on a computer hard drive.

“This is really pushing the envelope in the limits of detection for disease markers,” Porter said.

Ultimately, Porter wants to develop a portable device with this technology that could help doctors in the field perform the test quickly without relying on a lab.

“That is the long-term goal,” he said. “It would allow doctors to harness the technology in remote areas where there is no access to things like electricity or refrigeration.”

Meanwhile, Rajesh Menon, a USTAR associate professor in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Utah, has been researching the possibility of making computers millions of times faster by using light instead of electrons to process information.

Known as “silicon photonics,” Menon is using light waves in silicon chips to process and shuttle data. Menon and his team have been developing microscopic “passive devices” for silicon chips that can manipulate the pathways of light through a computer processor. Currently, electrical currents move through copper pathways on traditional silicon chips, which is a much slower process of moving data, and it also creates heat.

But by developing these passive devices to bend the light waves in different directions through the chip, information can travel much faster, and it will require much less power to operate. That means mobile devices such as phones or laptops that use this technology could last much longer on a single battery charge.

“We are now at the starting point of the ‘silicon photonics revolution,” he said.

Menon believes it will only be a few years before data centers and super computers could use passive devices such as the ones he’s creating. They would be designed for processors that use a hybrid of electronics and silicon photonics.

“I’m pretty confident that you will see some application of silicon photonics in consumer devices very soon,” he said. “It could be phones, it could be as simple as a new kinds of displays or sensors.”

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