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01/01/2020 - 10 Nanoscience Breakthroughs that Will Change the World

By Alan S. Brown

The past decade brought breakthroughs in nanoscience that promise to revolutionize our world, ranging from radically new genetic engineering tools and quantum computing to origami-inspired robots, targeted medicines, and artificial organs. 

These innovations came after countless scientists struggled for decades to tease out the most intimate properties of the smallest objects humanity ever tried to measure or manipulate. The fruits of their quest led to an incredible flowering over the past 10 years. Here are some of the highlights: 

1. Gene editing

CRISPR-Cas9's speed and simplicity make it a breakthrough way to edit DNA. It consists of two modified molecules: CRISPR, which finds specific genes along a strand of DNA, and CAS9, which inserts, removes, or modifies the gene at that location. Until CRISPR, it too graduate-level skills and months to modify genes. Now, a technician can do the work in hours.

In just seven years, CRISPR's speed and simplicity has revolutionized genetic engineering. Researchers are using it to investigate permanent cures for genetic-based diseases, such as muscular dystrophy and sickle-cell anemia, and some forms of cancer, and to improve agricultural crops and livestock. No wonder the 2019 Kavli Prize and Nobel Prize went to CRISPR-Cas9's developers.

2. Quantum computing

Another nanoscience breakthrough involves quantum computing, which promises to solve problems too complex for today's digital computers, such as predicting how chemicals and drugs will behave from digital models. This is because quantum computers use qubits, which can handle more information than a digital computer. A 30-qubit quantum computer has more than 1 billion possible configurations--and it can run calculations on all of them simultaneously. 

Fortunately, some nanostructures are small enough to interact with quantum objects, such as individual electrons and particles of light. Researchers at QuTech, an international consortium that grew out of the Technical University of Delft's Kavli Institute of Nanoscience, and other groups around the world are now building nanoscale devices that can harness quantum properties to perform calculations. 

3. Quantum physics

Kavli researchers at Delft have used nanoscience to probe fundamental physics. They were the first to observe a Majorana fermion, a particle that is its own antiparticle, ending an 80-year hunt. They also provided a convincing demonstration of quantum entanglement, a state in which two particles behave as if they are one. Albert Einstein believed some local force controlled this "spooky" behavior. In a trailblazing experiment, the Delft team proved Einstein wrong by entangling two particles separated by more than one kilometer. They are now using entanglement to build an "unhackable" computer network.

4. 2D robots

Films only a few atoms thick, often called two-dimensional materials, have unusual properties that are useful in electronics and solar cells. By using origami folds and slices, researchers at the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science recently showed they could transform 2D materials into microscopic 3D robots with electric circuits and solar cell power packs.

5. Invisibility cloak

Metamaterials are artificial microscale and nanoscale structures that interact with light and energy in unusual ways. Invisibility cloaks do this by bending light around an object the way rushing water streams around large rocks in a river. While the cloak was pioneered at Duke University, researchers at Kavli Institutes at Caltech and Berkeley are also working with optical metamaterials, building their own cloaks and flat lenses that magnify objects with less distortion.

6. Water from the desert

Researchers at the Energy NanoScience Institute at Berkeley have pioneered an unusual crystal that is mostly air, a Tinker Toy-like structure of metal hubs and organic molecule rods. These metal-organic frameworks have vast potential, such as trapping water from desert air at night and releasing it during the day. Powered by small solar power, such devices could aid people living in regions without adequate drinking water.

7. Artificial leaves

The Kavli Energy NanoScience Institute at Berkeley is working on artificial leaves. Ordinarily, leaves turn sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into sugar, which plants use for energy. Their artificial equivalents use nanoscale structures to transform sunlight into electrons, which "feed" genetically modified bacteria that produce fuels and other chemicals instead of sugar. 

8. Instruments

One reason nanoscience has impacted so many different fields is that new instruments make it possible to observe an object's behavior at the nanoscale. In the past decade, advances have made it possible to isolate individual atoms to study their quantum properties, image complex chemical reactions as they take place in billionths of a second, and watch how molecules in cells interact with one another. This ongoing research is taking place at Kavli Institutes and other research centers around the world.

9. Nanomedicine

By imaging biomolecular interactions at the nanoscale, researchers around the world, including Kavli Institutes, are learning the most intimate details of how diseases grow and defend themselves. They can use that information to add molecules to existing medicines so they target only those diseased cells, or create entirely new types of medicines designed to exploit disease cell weaknesses. 

10. Synthetic cells​

Several research groups around the world, including the Kavli Institute at Delft, have launched ambitious programs to produce synthetic cells built from molecules and nanostructures on up. Such programs require mastery of the cell's most concealed secrets, which would enable biologists to customize cells that perform functions that no cells can now do, such as remediate pollution, attack cancer, or rid our bodies of toxins and viruses.

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