October 3, 2022 - Podcast

Episode 310 — Using nanocrystal research to drive innovation

Nanocrystals are microscopic collections of atoms that drive innovation in all sectors of the economy. They are used in catalytic converters, transparent sunscreens, self-cleaning surfaces and even medicines.

Nanocrystals are so small that they're measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter. But contrary to their size, nanocrystals have huge potential as drivers of innovation.

Indiana University chemist Sara Skrabalak says this potential comes from nanocrystals' ability to display properties distinct from their larger forms. For example, most people are familiar with the lustrous yellow of gold bricks, but nanocrystals of gold can appear nearly any color, depending on their specific size and shape.

Skrabalak is delving deeper into nanocrystal research as the leader of a multi-institution team of scientists recently awarded $1.8 million from the National Science Foundation to establish a research center focused on transforming nanocrystal discovery and design.

The new Center for Single-Entity Nanochemistry and Nanocrystal Design is part of the NSF's Centers for Chemical Innovation Program, which funds centers focused on long-term, fundamental chemical research challenges. The project will also provide IU chemistry students with hands-on research experience in the field of nanomaterials.

In addition to IU, the research team includes scientists at Texas A&M University, the University of Texas at Austin, and Temple University. Together, they will develop new technologies to rapidly identify and leverage the unique properties of nanocrystals in a variety of applications, such as disease treatments and platforms for sustainable energy.

Skrabalak says one challenge the researchers hope to address is how to speed the discovery of promising nanocrystals. That process is currently very time-consuming because of the sheer diversity of nanocrystals within one sample, requiring researchers to analyze each nanocrystal in a sample individually. She says the center aims to create the scientific toolkit and chemical knowledge to change how the research community thinks about the diversity of nanocrystal samples -- viewing such diversity as an asset to discovery rather than a detriment.